On Christmas Eve I did something I had never done before, I went on a sleigh ride. It wasn’t just one of those sleigh rides you pay for as a tourist attraction in a quaint little Christmas-looking mountain village, but I went on an authentic Wyoming ride, with a sleigh, restored by Deacon Bryce and myself (with a little help from our friends) and Chief, the horse, whom Deacon Bryce had been training this past autumn to pull the sleigh. Now is typically the part where you would think I would describe the sleigh ride as “magical” or “amazing” or other such things, but I’m not going to. In fact the sleigh ride was a bit more mundane that I had originally thought…and yet, even so, the reality was more beautiful than any of the perfect, romanticized versions could ever be, and I loved it.
Now, before I get too far ahead, let me back up. In August Deacon Bryce and I drove past an old, run-down sleigh for sale in Riverton. After a couple weeks of stopping, looking at it, and debating to buy it, we ultimately made the jump and purchased it together with the intent to restore it and we also hoped to train a horse to actually pull the sleigh. Now, I will admit right off the bat that I am no carpenter or metal worker…but Deacon Bryce most certainly is, and I became his “apprentice,” so to speak. We set off restoring the sleigh, which was naturally overseen by Deacon Bryce because of his knowledge and expertise. We sanded, oiled, and re-painted it (with the help of Gayle and Judy) and we even re-upholstered it thanks to Deacon Bryce’s insistence that we could do everything ourselves. Concurrently Deacon Bryce, assisted by Gayle, was training Chief, the horse who was a fairly wild stud 6 months ago and wandered into the Mission, to wear a saddle and be ridden. They also trained Chief to pull a chariot to get him comfortable pulling a sleigh. By December 24 the sleigh restoration was complete and Chief was ready to pull her out in the snow. It was beautiful.
Christmas Eve arrived and the sleight was complete, so what else were we to do except take the sleigh out for a test drive? We hooked Chief up to the sleigh and he pulled it like a champ around the old football field next to the Post Office in the untouched snow. We just drove Chief in big laps around the field, Deacon Bryce taking him first. I got to ride next with Deacon Bryce, and then Gayle went for a ride. Ron and Laura even got to take the sleigh out for a spin by themselves, which was, perhaps, the best part. Watching their laughter and merriment at the joy of driving the sleigh was very touching and heartwarming.
We smiled in satisfaction that we had completed such an endeavor with so many moving parts, by Christmas no less! So many things could have gone awry, Deacon Bryce couldn’t have trained Chief without Gayle’s help, and what if Chief wasn’t able to be trained quick enough to be ready by Christmas? Or what if we couldn’t fully restore the sleigh quick enough? The upholstery was potentially problematic and, as it was, we were putting the finishing touches on the sleigh Christmas Eve morning. If this had been done by only one of us individually, the whole project wouldn’t have come together like it did, in the fashion that it did. Each of us played a crucial part in the outcome of this fantastic vision, and each of us was essential in a particular way. What a beautiful collaboration of persons, skills, and minds!
Like I mentioned earlier, the sleigh ride itself wasn’t exactly the most exciting ride I’ve ever been on and wasn’t this “magical” experience that is often in people’s minds; but, because of the people involved and the experience of putting together this whole project ourselves, the sleigh ride took on a whole new meaning. That sleigh ride on Christmas Eve with my friends uplifted my spirit and truly helped me enter into the Christmas season with joy. The “magical” yet unreal vision most people have of sleigh rides is most often just that, fantasy. Typically, a sleigh ride never happens quite like the movies portray. However, reality itself is often more beautiful if only we stop to see it, because reality is actually real unlike the fantasy of a romanticized ideal. The concrete reality of the sleigh showed up as flaws: it had cracks in the wood that needed wood-filler, it had rough spots that needed to be sanded down, the upholstery needed repair and even now isn’t quite symmetrical; in short, the sleigh, even after restoration, is, by no means, perfect. The imperfections, however, are not bad…they give the sleigh character and history, which is unique and unrepeatable. The sleigh is utterly real, not mere fantasy, and the result is astoundingly beautiful. Its perceived flaws are not bad; rather, they make the sleigh what it is, our sleigh, which we restored, and which we now ride.
The same thing can be said of humanity: reality is more beautiful than our unrealistic notion of the ideal of humanity. Often we get caught up in holding other people and ourselves to a preconceived notion of perfection that ultimately can never be reached, and we lose sight of the beauty in others and also in ourselves because we see only imperfections, flaws, things that “need to be fixed.” Now, don’t get me wrong, we should always strive for perfection, for Jesus himself tells us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). True perfection should always be striven for, as Jesus shows us. The problem, however, lies in our human perception of perfection, of that “ideal.” We like to think we know what the ideal is and, consequently, put our opinion into the equation and lose sight of true perfection, which is only found in Jesus. We tend to see the personality traits in other people and if they don’t agree with our notion of the ideal, we see them as flaws in the other person. People have quirks, they have skills and talents, they have personalities, they are unique…and none of these things is truly a bad thing. These are the traits that make each and every single person throughout all of history unique and real and, as a result, absolutely beautiful. Genuine flaws (especially moral flaws) in a person should be worked on, of course, in the natural and spiritual growth that we must all do in our journey toward holiness. Personality traits, on the other hand, need not be a threat, rather they are the way in which God has made each and every person unique and unrepeatable, much like our sleigh that is also unique and unrepeatable. We must learn to see these in other people as God does, “…for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
A simple sleigh ride showed me once again the truth that reality is far more beautiful than anything I can dream up. The sleigh ride was full of joy because it was the culmination of many days of horse training and the completion of the restoration project Deacon Bryce and I both embarked on; it wasn’t merely some attempt at the ideal sleigh ride conjured in our minds. The reality of humanity is similar. We, as human beings, are wholly beautiful, made uniquely with various traits as God fashioned us and are restored by Him when we sin (praise the Lord for his mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation!). We are not simply “projects” to be fixed by others who have an unrealistic notion of perfection, but we have dignity in the exact way we were created by God with our uniqueness. So let us all strive in this wonderful new year of 2017 to let go of our preconceived notions of the ideal and let ourselves actually encounter others and see the beauty that God most certainly sees in them.