Winter and the Spiritual Life

For much of the Northern Hemisphere, January is that month when the weather finally makes up its mind to turn cold, the nights seem a little darker, and the wind seems a little more bitter.  Gone are the cheery Christmas lights, gone are the echoes of carolers, gone is the warmth of expectation and feasting.  Many people who once hoped for a white Christmas now groan when the forecast calls for precipitation. While I love snow as much as the next person (and much more than the next person if that next person is my mother), even I would much rather have a white Christmas than a white January.

It’s no wonder that C.S. Lewis made Narnia under the spell of the evil White Witch “Always winter, never Christmas.”

Let’s turn to the wisdom of the words of St. Francis de Sales:

“All of the seasons of life come together in the soul.  Sometimes we feel winter’s sterility, distraction, distaste, and boredom, sometimes spring’s dew, with the fragrance of holy blossoms, and sometimes a burning desire to please our good God… We want it always to be spring and summer, but there must be vicissitudes of the interior life as well as the exterior.” 

Roses Among Thorns: Simple Advice for Renewing Your Spiritual Journey by St Francis de Sales, edited and translated by Christopher O. Blum

As much as we’d like to always bask in the warmth of a spiritual comforts and enjoy an easy time praying and being in the presence of God, anyone journeying in the spiritual life will hit winter at some point.  Prayer will be hard, meditation will be a struggle, and the temptation to abandon all efforts will be real.

Some of these winters are self-imposed. Others are from God.  In both, I’ll be tried and tested to love the Creator and not the simply the seasons. I’ll be reminded to love the Giver of the gifts and not simply the gifts themselves. Do I pray because I love God or because I love the way it makes me feel?

It’s much easier to be a saint during a weekend retreat than it is in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It’s easier to smile during Christmas than during Ordinary Time.  It’s easier to love God when my prayer life is full of consolations than when my prayer life is dry. But what is measure of my love?  What it looks like in springs and summers or what it looks like in the dead of winter?  This is true for human relationships as well as our love of God.

Returning to the winter of Narnia, there’s an interesting parallel in C.S. Lewis’ account of his conversion.  In Narnia, when Aslan returns (and with him, Father Christmas), the White Witch’s days are numbered and the snow and frost begin to melt as spring begins to show its face.  In Surprised by Joy, Lewis uses this same melting imagery to describe the slow and steady process as he begins to leave his life of atheism.

“I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.”

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

For such a difficult and momentous conversion, I first found his description to be rather underwhelming. The passage does not detail some thunderous realization, some earth-shattering moment, but a process where once a step was taken in a direction, it was hard to avoid the next.  It was not a dramatic firework. Rather, the snow melted -– slowly, surely -– and springtime came.

That’s life.  Sure, we’d rather have the earthshaking moments in prayer where we are assured of God’s presence.  And we’d obviously rather only have springtimes and summers in prayer.  Sometimes we get all of that. But prayer, like life, is full of winters. It’s not about perpetual spring.  It’s about our love and perseverance during the cold moments.  We can have confidence that God is still working — even in the coldness, even in the darkness, even when all seems quiet.

For those of us dreading a cold January, there’s hope ahead. Soon days will get longer, sunrises will come sooner, and before too long, the crocus will be poking out of the cold earth.  Until then, we remain faithful in the winter. He’s here too.

Image credit: Photo by Paul Pastourmatzis on Unsplash

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