I had the occasion last winter to spend a week in the picturesque Adirondack Mountains. Ostensibly a ski trip, but actually just an excuse to leave the city behind and commune with nature, a few friends and I departed the hub-bub and blackened snow of southwestern Connecticut for the unspoiled northland.
We stayed at what was once called a “dude ranch” but is now known as a “ranch resort.” In the summer, every day of the week is filled with activities ranging from swimming, boating and fishing on the ranch’s pine-circled lake, to tennis, volleyball and horseback riding on its spacious grounds and trails.
But in the winter, while activities still abound, the desire in the sportsman’s belly is sometimes better slaked by the feast of the eyes. Except for the well-shoveled pathways, the ground is blanketed by snow still as white as when it left the heavens. Separated from the main highway by a three-mile dirt road that snakes up into the mountains alongside a sparkling, winding river below, the outside world need never intrude unless one cares to take in the nightly news in the main lodge: the guest cabins are blissfully without television or telephones.
Across this splendid backdrop scurried dozens of tiny children — bundled up by their parents like so many miniature Michelin men — out to survey the scene and to enjoy the season as had so many before them when the world was newer. Unencumbered by dangerous city streets, snow plows or rigorous schedules, they burst forth into the whiteness, ready for adventure.
Although the ranch staff, much like their parents at home, had prepared many activities to fill their days, the pastime that enchanted them most was careening sled-lessly down a huge pile of snow that had been cleared from the stables area. Up and down they came and went, blissfully ignoring the snowmobiles, ice-skates, skis and all the other gear arrayed neatly nearby.
Their simple display of pleasure was akin to the same kind of innocent joy one observes on Christmas morning when, despite the numerous and elaborate toys they receive, small children will most likely end up ignoring those in favor of exploring with wonder the large, discarded gift boxes instead.
One would hope that this combination of guileless delights and God’s great artistry might inspire similar joy in the adult of the species, but sadly it seldom does. Part of the ranch’s allure are the all-you-can-eat meals and the nightly offerings of wine and cheese fests, hot dog roasts and pizza parties; surely an opportunity for a return, at least temporarily, to the eat, drink and be merry days of happier simplicity.
But as we sat in the main lodge after dinner looking out at the darkened snowscape, lit like a fairyland by the moon over the lake and the amber lights ringing the cabins, the real world intruded like the proverbial thief in the night. A passing comment on religion uneasily shifted the talk to a more contemporary discussion of cholesterol-counting, vegetarianism, metabolism-altering prescription drugs, workout regimens and other healthful modernisms that robbed the scene of its beauty and the food of its pleasure. The spell was broken.
In an effort to avoid any irksome physical activity on the trip, I had brought with me a few good books. And so the next day, in an attempt to realign my psyche with my sublime surroundings, I curled up on a couch by the window of my cabin with a thick biography of that “beneficent bomb” of Catholic apologists, G.K. Chesterton; a man who would most surely have joined in my discomfort of the prior evening.
Flying off the pages of Joseph Pearce’s Wisdom and Innocence was a torrent of humanity, a giant of a man who enjoyed his time on earth to the fullest, the sure proof that a life dedicated to God can mean rejoicing in his gifts; not only of spirituality and grace, but of loving his creatures and creation itself. From Chesterton’s pen came a deluge of poetry and prose; sometimes paradoxical, often political, but always infused with religious fervor.
A man whose wonder and love of nature — like that of the children on the snow hill — was regarded as naivety by cynics and who was branded a hopeless romantic by his godless critics who forgot, as Pearce reminds us, “that it is the cynic and not the romantic who is without hope.” For he knew instinctively that the way to Heaven requires a child-like faith in God that becomes corrupt in men who seek to outgrow it:
I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud.
The life and works of a man like Chesterton who, through modern machinations could probably have lived much longer than his 62 years, should serve as an example to those who cater obsessively to the health of the body and ignore the ministrations of the soul: an unarguably brilliant man who truly “humbled himself like a child” before God and man alike, yet whose dazzling talents illuminated the world like a shaft of sunlight on the quiet mountains outside my window:
A man does not grow old without being bothered; but I have grown old without being bored…and this overwhelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me my first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation.