"And that was the difference. The ice in the rink did not groan."
The deep inkiness of winter nights often breathes adventure. This wild and fantastic exhilaration blends the thrill of a child, armed with a battery of crayons as he besieges a blank canvas, with the oddly restive warmth of hot chocolate and Christmas-wreathed family rooms. At once, the depth of winter nights calls forth the greatest fantasies, but fantasies haloed by home.
As anyone would, a couple of friends and I responded to the mystic nights. What better combination of quest and hero’s return than driving a pretentiously frivolous distance merely to go ice skating? Three eager, exam-shackled, determined women, we bundled into my car, imprudently ignored the broken headlight, and careened out of town. I would like to say that we were like the Three Wise Men, but I doubt that the revered kings were disappointed by the preposterously, exorbitantly taxing line at Culver’s.
Just as the mystic depths of night descended, our little troupe passed the Catholic parish and found our ice rink. The bright and loud rink stood in sharp contrast to the locked, dark church we had passed. Garish light, boisterous strangers, and jarring music heralded our escape from the night. Like three modest penguins, we gingerly adjusted our skates and shuffled off to the ice. And, even more like the penguins, we soon started flapping our arms, but instead of flying, we flattened into abdominal sleds.
I am happy to say that we adjusted, and soon we scooted along, more or less gracefully. The light was bright, unwavering. The people around me were loud, ramming into the sides of the rink, or carving great scars with their dramatic braking. Around and around we went, learning the mystery of gliding on knives.
But one thing bothered me, significantly.
I thought back to when I had skated before, mostly on my family’s pond. My memories are those of the fervent child, panting to race my older siblings. I could marvel at the translucent darkness slivered by our hand-me-down skates, could even listen to the sibilant gasping of the ice as our blades cut its glassy surface, could hear the ice groaning.
And that was the difference. The ice in the rink did not groan.
I gazed down at the rink’s ice. It was opaque, white, only a veneer plastered over cement. It was chipped and used, yes, but would swiftly be smoothed by the Zamboni. Strangers would come, pay their dollars, skate, and leave. The ice was only a means to an end. It was perfectly understood, expendable. Any flaw would be smoothed over, or if some irreparable damage occurred, it could always be replaced.
But the ice at home…
The ice at home was a world unto itself, a treasured diamond, a fragile glass, a dangerous game. It had a life unto itself, and we cherished it. For one thing, we did treasure it as a delicate masterpiece. Nature had to frame her mirror, sending just the right temperature, without a blanket of snow that would partially heat and mar the ice. The pond then had to be tested, with Dad gingerly walking out, listening and stamping. If snow came after the ice was thick enough, we had to clear it by hand, pulling our manure shovels and pig-herding boards out of the barn to push it off. We would spend hours of back-breaking work, just to have one joyous afternoon skating.
But the skating itself stamped on our minds just how beautiful the ice was. Good ice on a pond is not white. It is translucent. You look down, and in the shallows, you might see pebbles, or stray leaves. The further you go, though, the deeper the darkness grows. You pass from deep blue to the midnight. If you are lucky, the only marks on the ice are those left by your own skates. It would make anyone marvel, to see the perfect smoothness of country ice sliced by the whisper of a skate blade. The rasp of our skates and the groaning of the ice were the only sounds in the thick, frozen air. Expanded by the cold, and shifting our weight, the pond would crack, not the dramatic breakage of Hollywood, but tectonic shifts that left hairline fissures through the ice. One could gaze down, through the ice, and see how thick it was—six or eight inches, even—thanks to this rift. These “rifts” were perfectly safe to skate over. They did not harm the smoothness of the ice, only spoke to its real, breathing life. Ice was a thing at once terrifying, beautiful, fragile. You could hear it snap, or feel it under your skates, and think of just how close the dark depths were.
And this is what so disappointed me with the rink’s ice. It was not alive.
It had no depths underneath it, dark but living. It needed only manicure attention.
As I continued to skate, I thought of how disappointing it was, for the dark unknown of the pond waters to be replaced with white ice, concealing dull cement.
This portrays well the spiritual life. Often we think that a good walk with God is like the rink—well-lit, obvious, perfectly safe. The real path to Christ, however, is a tenuous balancing act, coasting over the wilds. We have to exert ourselves to move forward, but most of the work is really just keeping one’s balance and leaning into the momentum. The ice itself, our constantly shifting life, is something that must have the right conditions, that we must labor to clear of whatever snow piles up. Most important, though, are the dark and unknown depths, which we can see, but not understand. God is not scientifically manufactured cement, strategically measured out and molded into shape.
The Divine Life is a living mystery, ever moving beneath the surface of our life, ever surprising us with its terrifying depths.
And it is only after the dance over the path of God, this dangerous play on the crust of Eternity, that our hearts are truly prepared to finally trudge back to the radiant warmth of home, to thaw and rest with the other skaters, who wove with us over the dark and icy depths.