Before the start of the academic year I take students at our university to Colorado. I never quite know what to call our experience. It is part “retreat”: a chaplain accompanies us, there is daily Mass, rosary, divine office, discussions of faith. It’s also part “recreation”: we climb 14ers, swim in lakes high in the mountains, sight see, stargaze. It’s also part “academic symposium”: we read and discuss Plato, Benedict XVI, Alan Bloom, Bl. Cardinal Newman.
If you have read my previous posts at CBC, you can guess right that my preferred term for all of this would be “leisure”. Cultivation of the human person as a whole: mind, body, and spirit. What I was reminded of, on this particular trip, was just how dangerous leisure can be.
College students, as you know, are not early-to-be, early-to-rise. And on the last day of the trip we were one of the last groups to start our morning ascent of Quandary Peak. Besides a case of altitude sickness, we were doing well. Below the tree-line there were plenty of “ooh” and “aah” moments with loveable forest animals and August flowers. As we broke through the tree line and made our way along a ridge before the final ascent, we had our mid-morning snack interrupted by a mountain goat and her kid.
A student asked and we started to recited Fr. Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God...
Swiftly after this clouds began to roll in and the race began to summit before the usual afternoon storms.
It will flame out like shining from shook foil...
What a poor choice of poem for those soon about to brave 14,000 feet with storms rising!
One group raced to the top. I myself, by pretext of waiting for one of the men who had fallen behind, gave my not-as-limber-as-21 legs and lungs a chance to recover before the final ascent about 100 feet from the rocky summit. As the first group began to make its way down, it began, in the choice phrase of one sophomore, “hailing Dippin’ Dots”. Any hope of cover lay about 2,000 feet below. As Miss Dickinson put it, “the dews drew quivering and chill”. Suddenly at 14,300 feet August traded places with December. The view was surreal, or rather supra-real. Hazy through the cloud I could see miles below in the valley patches of sunlight and reservoirs. At my feet the hail built up into tiny drifts between the rocks. It was like standing between the pages of a children’s book, to my left a picture of winter, to my right summer.
After the initial, “Is this happening moment?”, I crossed myself, said my act of contrition and began to book it down the mountain. As chance would have it, a senior majoring in meteorology was my companion down the mountain. To be stuck INSIDE the cloud of a hailstorm with a meteorologist is an experience I shall never forget. Magic Schoolbus, eat your heart out.
I was told later that a student in one of the groups below, not grasping the seriousness of our situation began reciting John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X:
Death, be not proud...
That evening as we gathered for Mass our chaplain summarized the experience well. The Christian is to live every day as though it were his last. Leisure, holy leisure, as we experience it in this life is a preparation for death. Our philosophic speculations, if they are not mere navel-gazing; and our sport, if played in earnest; and our faith, if it seeks something beyond earthly peace [Matthew 10:34], will always be conducted for mortal stakes.
In the eyes of this world, God’s peace is a very dangerous thing.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.