In most years, Epiphany marks the real beginning of winter here in northern Illinois. November and December roll along, as temperatures drop and the days grow shorter, but the weather that we normally associate with the Upper Midwest — days-long snowstorms, blowing winds, bitter temperatures — make their appearance about the same time as the Wise Men. It’s not unusual to have a less-than-white Christmas — or even to have a green one.
This is not most years. In December, we saw almost as much snow as my parents did, living in the snow belt on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. But repeated thaws and freezings, sunny days and windy evenings, have hardened off the snow banks and left the roads mercifully free of snow and ice.
Not so the sidewalks, which, on this Epiphany, are in the most treacherous shape I can remember. I pick my way cautiously, eyes focused on the ground, skirting around large patches of black ice that are obvious enough in the sunlight but which, I realize with a sense of foreboding, will be invisible as I walk home from work in the northern darkness of Epiphany evening.
Like most Americans, over the years I have abused my body with reckless abandon, shoveling junk food (as well as overly large quantities of more healthy fare) into my maw as if there were no tomorrow. And yet, like most, I’m much more concerned about the dangers to my body while out walking in our winter wonderland. Gluttony sneaks up on us, wears us down so insidiously that we rarely notice until it’s too late; but a misplaced foot on an icy sidewalk can bring consequences that are immediate, severe, and obvious — a bump on the head, a sprained wrist, a cracked rib.
And so we avoid the near occasions of slipping far more painstakingly than we avoid the near occasions of sin. Yet, just as my left foot briefly loses traction, the words of the Baltimore Catechism come back to me:
Q. Of which must we take more care, our soul or our body?
A. We must take more care of our soul than of our body.
Even in the worst of years, the black ice of our winter streets and sidewalks is a sporadic phenomenon, usually obvious (as long as you’re paying attention) and thus avoidable. In the modern world, however, the black ice of our spiritual life surrounds us every day. Worse, even when it’s obvious, we may make little effort to avoid it. Sometimes we even go out of our way to skate on the ice, deluding ourselves into thinking that we will not fall.
And yet, when our recklessness brings us down, the consequences are much worse than a bruise or a broken bone.
Q. Why must we take more care of our soul than of our body?
A. We must take more care of our soul than of our body, because in losing our soul we lose God and everlasting happiness.
As I leave work, the night is perfectly clear, still, and black. Walking down the driveway to the sidewalk, I see that the ground is covered with a fresh coat of snow. It’s not much: somewhere between a quarter- and a half-inch — just enough to lure the unsuspecting walker onto a cloaked patch of black ice. The air is cold, so the snowflakes are small and hard, reducing the friction between my boots and the ground beneath.
I pick my way carefully, wishing that I had paid even closer attention in the morning, so that I might recall where the worst patches are. In the first few blocks, I slip a half-dozen times, and I consider halting and calling my wife to come pick me up. She’s a good woman; she wouldn’t complain — and I could be home and settling down for our Epiphany feast in under ten minutes.
Something in me rebels against the thought. I’ve got less than a mile to go. I can make it; I don’t need help.
I cross another street and start up the next block. One of the few streetlights on this stretch of Harlem Avenue casts a soft yellow glow over glittering snow on the sidewalk ahead, and I remember from my morning walk that one of the most extensive and perfectly smooth patches of black ice lies under that snow. Like the snow covering it, the ice has a perfect natural beauty.
Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, argued that men do not choose evil and ugliness for their own sake, but out of a perverted or inordinate desire for happiness and beauty. A rough analogy begins to form in my mind. The ice and the snow are not bad in themselves; indeed, they have both brought me brief moments of happiness today. But throw a man into the mix, and the combination, on this night, could spell disaster.
Perhaps my thoughts distracted me; perhaps there was nothing I could do, but as I advance upon the snow-covered ice, my feet slide out from under me, and I go down — hard. Lying on the ground, winded, I’m surprised that, other than my right elbow, I don’t seem to be in pain. I work my way up to a sitting position and pause before trying to rise.
“Are you OK?” a voice behind me says. “You hit hard. I could hear it inside.” An elderly gentleman is coming down the driveway of the house I just passed. My pride smarting more than my body, I roll to my left and rise. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? Would you like me to take you somewhere?” I start to say no. It’s not that much farther; the only thing that hurts is my elbow. Having fallen once, I’ll be more careful. I don’t need your help.
And then, oddly, as I look into his face, lined with worry, the words of the Baltimore Catechism come back to me again: “We must take more care of our soul than of our body.” Quite literally, my pride has gone before my fall.
“Yes, please. I’d appreciate a ride home.” A smile breaks his look of concern: “I’ll go get my keys.”
As I wait on the sidewalk for my newfound friend to return, I remember a passage I had marked this very morning in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, to come back to for further reflection. Discussing “Communion in charity,” the Catechism notes, “In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all” (953).
There was no need for me to fall tonight; my pride brought on the aching that I feel slowly spreading across my back and down my arm. But my pride also prevented the act of charity that my wife would have happily performed in coming to pick me up. And even after my fall, it almost prevented the one that this elderly gentlemen longed to perform.
Too often, we struggle across the black ice of our spiritual life alone, not because others have abandoned us, but because we’re not willing to admit that we need help or to accept it when offered. We may happily perform acts of charity ourselves, but how often do we rebuff the efforts of others, their little acts of charity that would redound to the profit of all — to us, to them, to the entire communion of saints? In doing so, we not only expose ourselves to unnecessary falls, but deprive them — and the entire Body of Christ on earth — of the increase in grace that we all so desperately need.
My family waits at home, and through the kindness of a stranger, I’ll be there in a few minutes, in time to pull out of the oven the slow-roasted pork shoulder that we have prepared for the feast. It is Epiphany, and God has granted me an epiphany, and tonight I will celebrate both.