The Church of Cross Country
by Susan Riley
Reprinted with kind permission of the author
I don’t consider myself a religious person, but lately I have realized that I have a deep and abiding faith and that I am constantly proselytizing.
I believe in skiing. Not skiing, the sport, and not skiing, the exploding retail opportunity. I do not consider the Mountain Equipment Co-Op (our local gear shop) to be a place of worship (on the contrary, as Sister Agnes Louise might have said, it is an occasion to sin). Instead, I see skiing as a vehicle that leads me – and has for years, now that I think of it – to beauty, wonder, inspiration and, if the snow is right, to something like inner peace.
Buddhist monks chant. Jesuits flagellate themselves (or used to), Sufis twirl and I ski. Cross country. Classic. Every Sunday, and as many times during the week as I can get away.
There is probably a proper name for this faith of mine. Pantheism, perhaps – finding God in everything, but especially in nature. Except it isn’t God, exactly, that I find – certainly not the long-haired, bearded version; but not the Great Creator or the Universal Spirit or my Higher Power, either. Nothing that merits capital letters. What I find, actually, is a sweeping sense of gratitude, although to whom, or even for what, I cannot precisely say.
It has occurred to me that I might be a neo-pagan. I wear a lot of black. My alternate lifestyle, my feminist background and my squishy-green politics (such as they are) suggest that this would be a good match. From what I know, neo-paganism focuses on the four basic elements of life: water, fire, earth and 12-grain porridge. This sounds encouraging, although from my dim recollection, there is too much rosewater flung at neo-pagan rituals and too many pot lucks.
Nor do pagans, so far as I know, pursue their outdoor rituals with the purifying rigour that is so much part of my own practice. They like campfires. They like to gather twigs, pluck at their lyres, find special pebbles and wear natural fabrics (which rules out Lycra and all those carefully engineered underwear systems that devout skiers covet). They dance around the maypole, they gather in sacred groves and sway hypnotically. But did the druids ski? Not that I’ve ever heard.
A helpful friend and co-religionist thinks we could be latter-day transcendentalists, in the school of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and other 19th-century American writers and critics who drew their inspiration from nature. I am not sure that skiing has directly inspired a literary-spiritual movement; although fly fishing and baseball, alas, have. I did read a lot of nature write Annie Dillard when I was younger and on a previous quest (Dillard’s first rule of the wild: Carry Kleenex). But I sense there may be too much required reading with the Emerson bunch – and the goals might be too lofty. I don’t necessarily want to be one with the universe when I am skiing; I am happy to be one with the chipmunks.
Another option caught my eye when I was searching for spiritual guidance on the Internet (where else?): neo-Tantra. This is a practice, I guess, rather than a faith, which leads to “bliss resulting from certain mental, physical and spiritual practices.” Not only sex, apparently, but also, theoretically, skiing. I do feel something approaching ecstasy some mornings when snowflakes float through a sunny wooded glade, or when one catches on an eyelash and remakes the world as a kaleidoscope does. But “tantric” sounds too much like tantrum, which reminds my of golf for some reason, and not skiing. And definitely not God.
So I tried an advanced search, this time completing a helpful 20-part questionnaire on my values and beliefs on a site called Belief System Selector (www.selectsmart.com/religion). To my disappointment, my highest ranking was the rather outdated and distinctly indoorsy Secular Humanism, followed by Unitarian Universalism, whatever that is, then Liberal Quakers. Neo-paganism was considerably down the list (at 72 per cent) and Roman Catholicism was second-last (18 per cent), just before Jehovah’s Witness.
So I am still wandering, still searching, although I know I’m not alone. I recognize members of the congregation as they ski past me – broad smiles, a strange brightness in the eyes, a glow that speaks of secret knowledge. Not that we are an exclusive sect. It is possible, although usually only midweek when the ski is brilliant blue and everyone else is at work, to find paradise on skate skis – possible, but groomed roadways aren’t as sacred, somehow, as are woodland pistes. As for a growing breakaway sect: You can get to heaven on snowshoes, but it will take longer.
That said, every spiritual journey has its ups and downs and there are many different paths. I’m just lucky that mine, Trail 22, runs so close to my house.
Susan Riley is a journalist in Ottawa