It was a quiet breakfast, as to be expected. The invitation to ski up into the wilderness on New Years Day sounded like a good idea, in August. Now was a moment of sober re-evaluation, accented by sub-zero temperatures, sleep deprivation, and a touch of influenza (a gift from the East Coasters). Everyone ate in silence and pondered the same question: Why did I ever agree to go to the Polar Star Inn?
The Polar Star Inn. Taking its inspiration from 10th mountain division training huts, to call it an “inn” is about as honest as calling the approach a “hike.” This quiet locale, nestled in a city of evergreens beneath New York Mountain, was first prospected by Buck Rogers, once a famous 49er in California. The area southeast of Eagle, Colorado exploded with a gold strike in 1890, and a new Polar Star came to the map. By the mid-20th century, it has run its course, leaving only skiers venturing into the wooded glades above the old mine.
To describe the trek as formidable is an understatement. Our outfit, seasoned in the outdoors, struggled long and hard, well into the fateful hours of the waning sun, to arrive at an Inn’s hearth – frozen, half starved, slightly raving. Too exhausted to mutiny and nowhere to go, the company retired for evening. It was a quiet dinner, as to be expected.
The backcountry affords reflective moments, which always bring about that haunting question - why. Why did we labor all day through deep snow and up steep gains to return to a pre-industrial quality of living? If the ultimate answer to every human question is the Trinity, then the path to this answer is somewhere in the Christian life. And here we depart a trailhead called askesis.
Every Catholic is acquainted with the concept of asceticism, even if the word is foreign and a bit intimidating. Opening the New Testament at will and you will find the first confrontation of the Christian message: the requirement to deny oneself in order to follow Christ. This self-denial or renunciation was called askesis by the Ancients – where we derive the word asceticism. One could say that the Christian faith does not become real until something is lost; then it starts to become life. But in a world embracing Neo-Paganism, with its total hedonistic import, Christian asceticism looks fanatical. At a deeper level, we could say that the our approach to renunciation is determined by our anthropology, our understanding of what it means to be a human person. Thus for the Christian, renunciation is essential because concupiscence, a consequence of original sin, remains after the baptismal remission of sin. The work of ascetical renunciation is the work of ordering oneself, always in and through grace, to become what man originally was. Christian asceticism offers an insight into the natural experiences of renunciation, and vice versa. Von Balthasar writes,
“The word asceticism derives from the Greek askeo, which means to work at something artfully and with great care … it implies exercise, particularly physical exercise. The ascetic is really the sportsman in the classical Greek sense … though not explicitly used in the New Testament, the word appears very early in history to describe the ‘the chiseling out of the Christian personality’ – a process which involved a great deal of effort, that is, discipline and self-denial.”
Christian self-denial is not the denial of the human. Such is the logic of the Incarnation. When we look at the existential structure of human action, we realize that renunciation is part of everything that we do. Every choice is a renunciation, especially the choice of love, which actually desires to renounce. Nothing can be chosen without un-choosing everything else. Every man who says yes to his bride simultaneously says no to every other woman in the world. At the altar on his wedding day, he is not considering the billions of women that he is denying in the moment; he is beholding the one that he chose. In the abstract, this is a charming consideration – love desires to renounce. But when you are suffering through der winter marsch with a German priest you thought you liked, one realizes the great difficulties it implies. Again, Von Balthasar writes,
“Man is constantly faced with a choice: he must make a decision to himself. He would not be human were it not so. And this spells renunciation in every case. Every Christian deed is a renunciation: renouncing a non-decision; renouncing to let oneself go, including the dolce vita; renouncing the pleasure to be and to know and to be permitted everything and the thousand possibilities I could have; yet I chose the one.”
At the celestial pole of our empty northern hemisphere, there is a star. It is fixed, and thus our perennial source of navigation. As long as man remains in relation to this polar star, his bearings are oriented and his direction is known. Likewise, if the God-Man Jesus Christ is not the fixed reference point of human existence, one risks a resented life of loveless renunciation. But for those of us who know the pole star, but seem to lose it amongst the city lights, its good to get away and take a ski askesis to the Polar Star Inn.