Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Spirit of Winter

So here we stand on the hinge of another year. The winter solstice has passed, Christmas has been and gone and we find ourselves in those in-between days before the beginning of a new year. Yes the day light hours will increase over the coming weeks but still we must face winter. January and February can be difficult as we feel stuck in the cold on these dark winter evenings.

Winter is not an easy time, so many of us want it over as soon as possible. We want spring and the new birth and the life that it brings, but that is not the way to live and we know it. To live, always holding on to the spring yet to come, is to fail to fully experience what is present now. There is such richness in the dark cold of winter and we need to feel it and allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. There is a beautiful wonder about winter that we would do well to embrace.

...I recently came across the following poem “Winter” by Robert Walsh...

The tree has bared itself to my view.
Its limbs and branches,
its hidden complexity,

So this is the frame work that holds the thick leaves.
So many leaves as to block the sun,
the lost sun,
the sunken sun.

Now only the spindly thin wood
casts its shadow on the earth.

Not for me this display of basics,
of skeletal function,
of inner structure and meaning.

Today I seek insulation,

I bundle, wrap, cover.

It seems to me that Robert Walsh does not like the bareness, the barrenness, the exposure of the naked trees. Perhaps it reminds him of his own vulnerability, his own exposure. Instead he wants to feel warm and safe and protected. As he says “Today I seek insulation, refuge, boundaries.” I suspect that this is something that we all desire often in life, this sense of being safe and protected. I certainly think that this is something that we seek in religion and spirituality. This sense that we are protected and safe, but is it realistic? He talks of seeking boundaries too. How often do the spiritually inclined speak of these? Me I wonder how often boundaries become barriers and insulation become isolation. If I have learnt anything in life it’s that self-protection just cuts you off and leaves you feeling all alone, once again.

I think that winter has much to teach us about the spiritual life and I suspect that it begins with the trees. I love driving through the countryside, in the north of England in winter time, particularly if there is layer of snow on the ground. The thing I love the most are those seemingly lonely winter trees, stretching out from the 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, lonely and almost devoid of life but I know that they are not. I know that by the coming spring the land I am passing through will look completely different, it will be bursting with life. The mistake is to fail to see the life there now. Life that is silently waiting to once again express itself.

One of the advantages of ministry is that it really forces you to pay attention to the passing seasons. By doing so you learn to appreciate what each has to offer. Winter has so much to offer if we would but let ourselves appreciate it and not do what Robert Walsh is hinting at in his poem. I think the trees in winter have much to teach we who would prefer to hibernate. If I have learnt anything I have learnt that the spiritual life is about living openly and vulnerably, it’s about accepting the reality of life. It’s about standing their upright, arms outstretch in the cold vulnerability of life waiting for the time of re-birth and renewal in whatever form this takes, just like the trees in winter.

...Greta Crosby writes of winter...

"Winter" by Greta Crosby

Let us not wish away the winter.
It is a season in itself,
Not simply the way to spring.

When trees rest, growing no leaves, gathering no light,
They let in sky and trace themselves delicately against dawns and sunsets.

The clarity and brilliance of the winter sky delight.
The loom of fog softens edges, lulls the eyes and ears of the quiet,
Awakens by risk the unquiet.
A low dark sky can snow, emblem of individuality, liberality, and aggregate power.
Snow invites to contemplation and to sport.

Winter is a table set with ice and starlight.

Winter dark tends to warm light: fire and candle;
Winter cold to hugs and huddles; winter want to gifts and sharing;
Winter danger to visions, plans, and common endeavoring --
And the zest of narrow escapes; winter tedium to merrymaking.

Let us therefore praise winter,
Rich in beauty, challenge, and pregnant negativities.

I’m with Greta Crosby (and not just because we share the same surname) when she says “Let us not wish away the winter. It is a season itself, not simply the way to spring. When trees rest, growing no leaves, gathering no light,”

Yes let’s not wish it away clinging desperately to hope of the new spring, let’s instead appreciate what the barrenness has to offer.

It’s not just the trees in winter that can teach us lessons either, the snow has much to offer too. Mary Oliver wrote a beautiful poem about snow.

"Snow" by Mary Oliver

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

The countryside in the north of England is so beautiful after the snow has fallen. I remember once as a student minister being at Great Hucklow and feeling that we would be stuck there for days as the snow fell and fell. Now as it happens we weren’t going anywhere so it didn’t matter. As luck would have it when it was time to go the snow had stopped falling and we could drive home. Again I remember the beauty of driving through the hills staring out at the blanket of snow that covered the ground.

In her poem Mary Oliver talks of a silence that comes with snow. I get that driving through the snow bound hills. When I do, I do not want to listen to music and I don’t want to speak and when I do, if I’m travelling with someone else, I do so in whispered tones.

Maybe this is the gift that winter brings, especially in these in-between days, after Christmas and before the coming of a new year, maybe its gift is the silence. How often in life do we spend time in silence, just listening to our breath or that of those around us and that of all life around us. How often do we spend time connecting to what is going on deep within us and the life we are surrounded by? Not much I guess. Most folk do not like silence. There is nothing to fear in the silence though. Silence is not merely absence of noise it is space that can be filled with possibility. Sometimes by walking silently out into in the silence of the snow, as Mary Oliver puts it, answers to the swirling questions may come.

So today we stand, silently, exposed at the hinge of the year, in the midst of winter. Maybe we don’t want to stand, maybe we don’t want the silence of the snow perhaps we would rather huddle up and make some noise. We need not be afraid, this is an important time as we prepare ourselves for the coming of a new year. A year filled with potential and possibilities. Who knows what the year will bring. We need to prepare ourselves for whatever is to come and to do so we need to first experience this winter and all it brings. Let’s not wish it all way. Let us instead open ourselves up to the cold and the vulnerability of the silence and let us do so in faith of what this life offers to us.

I will end this little chip of a "blogspot" with these beautiful words by Kathleen McTigue. A “Winter Blessing”

“Winter Blessing” Kathleen Mctigue

The world catches our hearts through its light:
splintering dance of sun on water,
calm moonlight poured through branches,
candles lit on early winter evenings,
a splatter of stars on a clear night,
and the bright eyes of those we love.
But the brilliance never ends,
even when the light goes out.
Mystery shimmers and shines in the world
in even the darkest corners.
It’s there where the roots push life into soil and rock,
in small lives lived under every stone;
there is the silent pulse beneath the tree bark.
It’s in the depth of slow tides as they turn,
there in the sky on moonless nights
when muffling clouds block out the stars.
It’s there in the prison, the hospital,
by hospice bed,
there at the graveside, in the empty house –
something beating in the dark shelter
of our hearts -
the small shine of hope, the gilt edge of kindness.

May we be granted the gift of deeper sight
that we might see – with or without the light.

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