Monday, 12 December 2011

The trees in winter

I was travelling through the Derbyshire hills the other day, on my way to the Nightingale centre at Great Hucklow. I spent most of the journey simply staring out of the window and taking in the beautiful winter scene. The fields were white with snow and sheep. I also noticed the lonely winter trees, stretching out from cold pale ground.

There is something very beautiful about the trees in winter. These lifeless stick like sculptures stretching out from the ground are stripped right down to the bone. They look vulnerable and exposed, but they are not. By next spring life will have returned and I know this scene will be very different. If I travel this way then I will see the new lambs and the rolling fields, separated by dry stone walls and the trees will once again be bursting into life.

I am enjoying this winter, I have a new found sense of appreciation for it today. This is because I am able to empathise with it. I feel that I have been stripped of some unwanted and unneeded skin these last few weeks; I feel that some of those barriers that block me from life, from love, from God have been removed; I feel that I have been opened up once again. Now some may see this as making myself vulnerable, well I have no problem with that. Life is a vulnerable experience; you cannot be protected from it. Actually by trying to protect myself from life is to actually live in fear and I do not believe that this is living at all. I know that my attempts to protect myself in the past have only ever made me feel increasingly lonelier and cut off. I need to feel the cold this winter, to truly experience it. I need to feel bare and stripped at times because I know by doing so I am preparing myself for the new birth of the new year and the coming of spring; I need to prepare myself for the pink snow that I use to see falling from the cherry blossom in the courtyard at Luther King House. But first I must feel the cold and not fear it. It’s funny I don’t seem to mind the cold this winter, in fact I’m actually enjoying the fact that I can feel it. I know that I am alive and by golly do I want to be alive.

I have been talking an awful lot about the coming of light these past few weeks, this is of course in celebration and appreciation of Advent. I have also talked about darkness and the “ache of loneliness”. Well now I am beginning to question myself. Is the dark all bad? Should we fear it? I am not wholly convinced that we should, it has its place in the circle of life, just as much as the light. The winter Solstice will soon be upon us. This year (2011) it will fall on the 22nd December. This is the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight hours of course. Every day last 24 hours, obviously. This shortest day marks the end of the descent into darkness and the beginning of the new light.

In Hinduism, which has recently celebrated its own festival of lights, the Deity most associated with darkness is Kali. On the surface she is seen as destructive, she drinks blood and wears a chain of skulls. Seen literally she would have to be viewed as monstrous and terrifying. This though is not what this icon is about, at all. There is something much deeper going on in the imagery. It is a mistake to get lost in the metaphor, this is true of all religious symbolism by the way. “Kali” in Sanskrit is the feminine word for time. In time we all die, it is a fate that cannot be avoided, no matter how clever we think we are. She is black, not because there are racial undertones here but because death is a mystery; we cannot know what will happen to us when we die. Kali represents the mystery of life and death and the continuing cyclical relationship between the two.

This is an image that seems particularly pertinent during the winter when everything has died off. The ground is hard and the trees are bare and generally speaking people’s moods seem a little lower. This though is not something that we should fear, in fact perhaps it should be celebrated. Everything that lives and grows, including we humans, needs to lie fallow for periods of time. We need this because we need to rest and regenerate. The leaves that fell from the trees in the autumn are now regenerating in the soil. By spring this will lead to new life. It is the death of these leaves that actually makes new life possible.

We need not fear the dark it is both regenerative and nurturing. Darkness symbolises the holy, just as much as the light. There can be no Easter without Good Friday. To ignore the darkness or to try and flee from is to ignore elements of the Divine revelation in life itself. There is nothing in life that is beyond the range and reach of God. These words from Psalm 139 always come to my mind when I think of darkness and light.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

9 If I take the wings of the morning

   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 

10 even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 

Advent truly is the season of darkness and light. Both of these qualities offer vital religious insights and both are worthy of our reflection during this sacred season. In the symbol of Yin and Yang, we see clearly the relationship between the light and dark. Where the whiteness of Yin is most dominant we see the seeds of Yang emerging and where Yang is more dominant we see Yin emerging. You see the light and dark give way to one another, they complement each other. You cannot have one without the other. Neither is beyond the reach of the Divine either, for they are both a like to this universal love. I do not believe that God would reject anything or anyone. This is not the way of love.

This year I am learning to appreciate the cold bareness of winter. Yes I am celebrating the coming of new hope and light, but not by ignoring the dark. I need the dark, I need to be stripped bare at times, I need to lose this skin that sometimes I feel so imprisoned in. I need to let the new life within me spring into being and thus allow my soul's recycle to continue.

I now understand how important it is to really feel the cold at times.


  1. An excellent piece. I have loved winter for years, and feel my hasppiness in nature return with Orion's belt in the sky. Have you ever done The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde?

  2. Thank you. I haven't done so yet, but you have inspired me to explore it later in January. Like yourself this year I have truly understood the power and beauty of winter

  3. The darkness is sacred, yes. It is the darkness that brings sleep and dreams and rest. It is also a symbol of the ineffable and unknowable aspect of the Divine, and a symbol of the Goddess.

    You might like an address I gave once about darkness and Epiphany.

  4. Thank you for this I will check it out...god has been speaking to me a lot these last few days as I've been driving across the Pennines...actually i don't mean this, I've just been aware and awake, there is no time where God is not speaking through life