‘There is a time for everything,
and a season for every
activity under the heavens…”
Today the weather was bitter; an east wind was flinging wet flakes into my eyes as I cycled with my daughter to pre-school. Early snowdrops were cursing their optimism while daffodils seemed nervously tucked into their beds, their shoots barely visible. The sun was peeking gingerly above the rooftops with no power to trouble the damp or chill.
It’s early February and I’m itching for spring. The days are lengthening and I can hear some brave (or foolhardy) birds warbling in the pre-dawn darkness. Not long hence and I will be forsaking my thick coat, scarf and gloves. I shall adorn myself with shorts and tee shirt; I shall arise from my hibernation into light and life, colour and warmth.
But what if winter, also, is to be welcomed, embraced even? What then?
Time and tempo
Before electricity, streetlights and cosy homes, life for our ancestors was tied to the rhythms of nature. Even in my own rural childhood our routines were entwined closely to the sun’s rising and setting and the unfolding of the seasons. The long nights and dreary days of winter meant that little work was possible in the fields; life slowed to a crawl. We got the board games out and huddled around the fire and the TV. Electricity black outs added to the drama especially if the wind was howling outside and the snow piling up on the window ledge. As the days lengthened, we’d begin to venture out. Birds, rabbits- and us kids- would shake off their winter slumber and venture out into a world, new-born.
In all our modern comforts and conveniences we moderns are both blessed and cursed. We seldom need to suffer the privations of darkness, extreme heat or cold, wet and wind. The subtle changes of the seasons pass us by and we hardly notice a flaming sunset or a crescent moon. At the flick of a switch or the turning of a key we can, like magic, dispense with variety, wonder, surprise and anything that might cause threat or discomfort. We are, I fear, coddled and cocooned from what we could well need the most; the things that remind us that we’re alive and that the universe is far more magical and awe-inspiring than any of our clever devices can replicate or imitate.
Making deep the winter
The fact is we need winter, nature and our souls alike. If we don’t go through winter, or darkness, or privation, or suffering we will never experience the liberation that waits at the far end. Without some kind of hiatus, life just continues as the ‘same old, same old’. No resurrection without death, no birth without labour, and no mountaintop without the valley: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies…”
We long for the grief of sorrow or loss to pass swiftly but to attempt haste is to invite much harm. We’d love to skip the tedious journey of poor health, looking for work, caring for loved ones, or wrestling with regret or grief but the road is, and so often needs to be, longer and far more winding than we thought we could endure. We want the dawn to come quickly, the winter of our unhappiness to be swift and painless but the secret is, so often, not to escape but embrace the season that life is offering to us.
The sacrament of the present season
Pope Francis tells the story of how, as a young man, he became seriously ill and very distressed as his health deteriorated. What got him through, however, was learning to avoid looking ahead to an uncertain future and finding strength in Christ’s presence in the present moment. He learned early in life the secret of embracing the present season, and ‘practising the presence’ of the living God.
We are doing our selves or our friends no favours if we attempt to alleviate their suffering prematurely. The ‘dark night of the soul’ has no light switch; the sense of abandonment must be endured through to the bitter end. We moderns love to escape winter by jumping on a plane and heading south; the soul, however, must endure the frozen north if it is to ever emerge into glorious spring.
Letting the seed die
I wonder if much of the huge weight of mental pain that our generation endures isn’t due to our attempts to avoid necessary suffering, to cut out winter and jump straight to April. If we want the kind of life that God intends we will, sooner or later, have to endure some form of a ‘dark night’ or ‘deep winter’. The false self doesn’t give up very easily. Like a seed in autumn it has to ‘fall to the ground and die’ and it must stay there for as long as it takes.
This false self takes many forms: a heart or mind closed to new or challenging ideas or people: ruinous compulsions, angers and lusts; deceptive identities built on money, sex or power. Jesus speaks of ‘hating’ our family; we have to unlearn many of the ‘self-evident’ truths of the family, culture or church of our upbringing when they don’t work, they make us miserable or they keep us from God.
It’s not easy to embrace every season or to allow it to simply be itself. It’s not hard to find wonder or delight on a resplendent May morning. It takes hard graft to welcome a dull and dreary February day, to find purpose and Presence in the shadows. Each day, though, is a gift, and an invitation to make new discoveries, find deeper encounters, and uncover hidden meaning.
So let’s not miss what this seemingly bleak day might have to offer, even if the sleet is blinding and the cold biting. Spring is on its way; the new self will rise from the ashes:
‘…then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown
he is breaking me down to his own
to send me forth on a new
morning, a new man.’