BERGAMO, ITALY — When learning to ski in your forties, you need an instructor with a sense of humor. We lucked out with Nadia, the tan, jovial woman who rented us our gear. She watched us struggling to put on the enormous boots and said, “Oh, you are very beginner!”
My nine-year-old son Lukas and I, both new to skiing, had shown up in the Italian Alps with price tags dangling from our gloves. Nadia took us to the beginner’s hill and showed us how to stop, saying, “Parallel ski, snowplow ski!” pushing her slender legs out with force. We practiced until it seemed we had this licked, and then she moved on, leading us downhill. Gravity kicked in, as it will, and my body, feeling the rush of the slope, did the sensible thing and tumbled promptly into the snow. This happened several times in a row, and each time, Nadia would jokingly call out:
“Paul, very disaster! No sit down, very up! No terror in the eyes! Tranquil!”
Tranquil was her word of choice for Lukas, who learned more quickly than his father. By the end of day one, he seemed to have mastered the snowplow trick while I continued to struggle. But we advanced to the larger hill, up one chairlift on Mount Foppolo. On this steeper slope, I gave into gravity with yet greater flair, falling so spectacularly, with a cartwheeling of legs and skis, that Nadia took over, grabbed hold of my poles and coaxed me down the mountain: “Snowplow, snowplow,” she advised, “very up, tranquil …”, as Lukas coasted by us with ease.
It was obvious who had the greater potential. On day two, I asked Nadia to work with my son and leave me to my own devices, such as they were. “I can do it,” I lied as we rode up the chairlift. “Don’t worry about me.”
“But you are very disaster.”
“You should be more encouraging,” I said. “You should believe in your students.”
She laughed at me. Lukas giggled. We fell quiet as we approached the end of the chairlift. That’s when Nadia began to pray. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what she was doing, muttering in Italian in a rapid, sing-song sort of way with her eyes shut.
Was this encouraging? I can’t say that it was. I can’t say I skied with much confidence. I fell twice on the way down, but I didn’t break any bones or suffer a concussion, and by the end of the afternoon, I could actually make it all the way without a single “disaster,” as could my son.
Over dinner that night in our lodge, Lukas and I had a little talk about Nadia.
“I think she was saying prayer for us,” I told him.
“I thought so too,” he said.
“What do you make of that?”
We agreed it was charming, and that we liked Nadia. We wondered if she prayed for all of her students or only the truly desperate cases. Then Lukas synthesized all he’d learned on the slopes this way:
“You just have be brave and relaxed. Otherwise, you fall.”
Well put, I thought. The next day I was braver, more relaxed. We both were, and by the end of our trip we were flying down that mountain at breathtaking speeds. We had a grand time learning our lessons about courage—it comes from the necessity of the slope, the inclines down which you find yourself sliding. No time for cowardice if you want to stay up; get on with it and ski!
The question of courage in the face of danger had been on my mind that week. A few days before the ski trip, my sister Kerry had emailed to say that my eldest sister Licia was in a panic while awaiting news about a lump on her breast. Could I say some prayers on her behalf, perhaps light a few candles, Kerry wanted to know?
I agreed. Since I’m spending this sabbatical year in Vilnius, Lithuania, I was able to visit not just any church, but the chapel that houses the original “divine mercy” image. The famous painting shows a barefoot, white-robed Jesus standing against a dark background, with rays of soft light emanating from His heart. Inspired by the visions of a modern-day Polish saint, the image has recently become a site of pilgrimage—one more relic contributing to the tradition of intercessionary prayer.
The urge to petition saints, Mary, and Jesus for help in the midst of struggle would seem to arise from human weakness and suffering. Yet there are those people—my sister Kerry is one—for whom the practice of intercession engenders a kind of spiritual poise. I would like to say I am such a person, too, but it isn’t so. I did go to the divine mercy chapel in Vilnius the day after receiving Kerry’s note. I even lit a candle. But I did all this with a degree of skepticism. On rare occasions I’ve experienced something more like true prayer—contemplation that leads to an intuited state of communion or interconnection. But when I tried to pray for my sister, I heard only the sound of my own doubtful thoughts. My past attempts at meditation have gone much the same way. The mind turns inward, rather than outward; it critiques its own motions and poses, its own shadows and noise.
But the anecdote ends well all the same. Coincidentally, Kerry would write me, she also prayed before the divine mercy image—a copy in her suburban DC church. As she was standing before it:
“almost right away I got a text from Licia saying that it was a miracle because, not only had the results come back benign, but they came on a Friday, [though] the doctor told her they would not have them until Tuesday of the following week, and she was looking at spending the entire weekend on high anxiety alert, almost disabled by intense anxiety. So I felt there was some connection, but maybe that is silly. But I don’t know… at the time I was very grateful and did feel it was a little miracle of sorts.”
I share her ambivalence: Maybe it’s silly to believe in the connection, maybe it’s hokum, but…
Why can’t we just set aside our rationality and, yes, call it a miracle of prayer? What have we to lose? Nothing much, except perhaps the respect of less imaginative people. Still, there is that inner reserve, that reluctance to believe that your mind can transcend itself. Perhaps skepticism isn’t the word to describe the hesitancy. Humility might be better for some, cowardice for others.
If you want to ski down a mountain, you need a bit of courage, and I suppose you need it to pray, too—a willingness to let go and trust your own spirit.
When Lukas was younger, around the age of six, his mother taught him to pray. That is, she helped him memorize the Hail Mary and the Our Father, and he soon was saying these prayers every night, sitting up in bed with his hands folded and eyes closed tight. If his sister was bothering him, he would go into the other room so he could concentrate better. After he repeated the lines of the prayers, he always whispered a while longer, asking God to protect all the members of his family. For a long stretch of time, he wouldn’t go to sleep without doing this, and doing it thoroughly. I was surprised with how dedicated he became. He appeared to have no doubts about the usefulness and necessity of prayer.
It’s said that children learn to ski more readily than adults because they are so much less afraid of falling. They have more faith that they can maintain balance as they gain speed. When I began to ski, of course, I distrusted my legs at every turn. I tried to slow myself so that if I had to take a dive, I’d be less likely to break something. Such calculations were alien to my son’s state of mind.
Likewise, he took to prayer without wariness. He uttered the words he’d been taught, trusting them as he trusted his own mother.
He won’t always be so trusting. He no longer prays before bed—that was a phase—and one day he may renounce the very need for prayer. Still, for now, he exhibits a natural courage of spirit. He takes to the slopes with admirable, if childish, tranquility.
I am grateful for this, and if prayers of intercession come haltingly, those of gratitude do not. They come readily, spontaneously, out of an abundance of feeling and directed to no particular god, but into the ether. I’m speaking of an indiscriminate urge to praise, to adore and celebrate. I felt such gratitude watching my son gain his ski legs—a small boy tracing a serpentine path down a great white mountain.