It was a perfect day for cross-country skiing. The snow was light and crisp. The cloudless sky made the snow glisten like diamonds. The mountains, with the mist rising from them, proudly stood guard over the valley through which we skied. The hills we climbed demanded a lot of energy, but this was compensated by gliding down well-groomed tracks. The pine forests, with trees looking as though they had been dabbed white by an impressionist painter, added to this most beautiful of scenes. Words from psalm 19 which I read a few hours earlier came flooding into my mind, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.’ There was no other place I would rather be at that time and, with my lovely wife and good friends, I had perfect company.
It was two kilometres from the end of our ten kilometre trek that my reverie was shattered. Descending down a fairly steep track, my imperfect skiing techniques were tried, tested and found wanting. One ski went along one track and the other ski had found an alternative that shouldn’t have been there. The track had been damaged – perhaps an earlier skier had the same problem I was facing and had devised an ingenious way out. But it didn’t work for me. I found myself completely out of control and ended up on the ground. Looking down, I saw that there was something seriously wrong with my knee which the accompanying pain confirmed. In the midst of beauty there was unexpected disaster and pain.
After being moved to the side of the track to prevent other skiers facing a similar plight, a pair of skiers who knew the area and how to contact mountain rescue, stopped to help us. Two minutes later, another skier stopped and identified himself as a physiotherapist. He quickly got to work and relocated my patella from the side of my knee to its rightful position. He got me on my feet and walking a few steps, telling me I needed to go immediately to hospital as there was likely to have been other damage. I subsequently discovered that his early intervention was key to faster healing. Both the couple who stayed with us to contact mountain rescue and the skiing physiotherapist continued their journeys once they had done what they could. These good Samaritans, who did not ski by on the other side, provided for us and left us in the capable hands of mountain rescue and from there the local hospital.
This experience in the Bavarian Alps made me reflect on three aspects of beauty, first, its fragility, secondly, the potential for disaster that lies within it and, finally, the capacity for redemption (being rescued from disaster) that it contains. But first a few words about my understanding of beauty.
Beauty is something or someone for us to appreciate, respect, enjoy and delight in but it is not something that we can possess or tame. Once beauty becomes enslaved or trapped it loses its shine, appeal and vitality. Beauty is mysterious, incomprehensible and awesome – if we enter into (rather than simply look at) something beautiful, then we become vulnerable and at the mercy of forces beyond our control which can be both an energising and frightening. In order to appreciate beauty we simply have to let it be what it was created to be. Human beings regard something as beautiful because it points beyond itself and at the same time has a resonance deep within humanity. The reason psalm 19 came into my mind while skiing was the bridge it made between the beauty of creation and my experience of God.
So, let me return to my three reflections. First, there is a fragility about beauty, whatever and wherever it is. Over the last twenty or so years, we have all been made aware of the fragility of the environment. Whether it is plastic in the planet’s oceans, blotting the landscape with characterless architecture or oppressing people and repressing their creativity, beauty can be stunted and damaged. It was a joy and a privilege to drink in and be part of the untarnished woods, rivers and valleys of Bavaria enhanced by the snow. Long may it last.
Secondly, within such beauty there is the potential for disaster, which I discovered to my cost. Once we enter something beautiful and become part of it, then we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. It’s like swimming in the sea, which can be a joyful and liberating experience, but, if we swim in choppy waters with strong undercurrents and are out of our depth, then beautiful warm waters can be treacherous. While they are beautiful, the Bavarian snow-fields can be hard and unforgiving, especially if you are out of control.
Finally, beauty contains the capacity for redemption(being rescued from disaster). After I read, earlier in the morning, those wonderful words from psalm 19 -‘The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ – I also read these words from the prayer which many thousands of Christians would have been praying that same morning:
Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children.
In other words, if we look closely at creation, we can see that God is at work (as the psalm confirms) and if we look closely at human beings, we can see God at work there as well. I experienced God’s love and concern through all those wonderful people (some of whose names I will never know) who rescued me from disaster. That environment of great beauty contained the potential for redemption.
I look forward to revisiting that place of fragility with its potential for disaster and redemption. Whether or not I will be on skis is yet to be determined.