WinterWinter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch

This year, winter in the Great Lakes region has been cold. Cold. Single digits Fahrenheit, day after day, week after week. The upper Great Lakes are gradually freezing over almost completely. Our lake, Ontario, resists freezing because of its greater depth, but this year even hardy Ontario is becoming covered with ice. Last week, a friend of mine participated in the annual Polar Plunge at Ontario Beach. Brian and I went to watch and cheer, standing on a windswept snow pile, while the plungers waded into a bone-chilling pool that had been cut through the ice near the shore, a pool already starting to re-freeze even before the event was over.

Every year, Brian and I have an ongoing difference of opinion about winter. He hates it, plain and simple. He wishes we lived in Florida, or Hawaii, or anywhere without any winter. He knows that I’m inevitably going to be excited about the beauty of those first fluffy white snowfalls in December, the magic of a white Christmas, the glory of those clean white January days of blinding sun and deep blue chilly skies. When we get the occasional storm, the kind that results in skiddy roads and lots of driveway shovelling, he will say — “Well, I suppose you’re happy now?” He seems to blame me for winter’s existance, just because I am able to like it most of the time, until the mid-February doldrums make me hungry for spring.

But this year, even I have found something brutal about winter. It’s the constant unyielding cold. Cold that shrinks me and shrivels me and drives me deep into hiding. I’m too cold to open myself to anything, even to this whiteness and cleanness and uncluttered spaciousness that would normally be all around me. Just walking from the car across the icy parking lot, bent into a wind that numbs my eyeballs, seems to exhaust me. My lungs feel seized by cold bands of iron, unable to draw full breaths. When I’m so burrowed into a hunkered-down state of endurance, there’s no spark of enterprise or initiative powerful enough to create an inner blaze. So bit by bit, a sort of apathy sets in. Life grinds to a stop, frozen under the ice, locked into just waiting this out.

Spiritually, this apathy and waiting are an interior winter. This is why we talk about a winter of the soul, or a winter of the mind. There’s no more accurate metaphor for this state — “Winter” sums it all up. When the annual arrival of Lent brings all the church to talk of “desert experiences”, times of dryness and deadness and endurance, it seems appropriate to me that we are usually in the deadest part of winter. I’ve lived all my life in a cold climate, never been to any of those iconic deserts in places like Arizona or New Mexico. But I know the meaning of “desert” deep in my stone-cold bones, and it is Winter. When I sing the first verse of Christina Rosetti’s hymn, I know this is my desert —

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

This book, Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, took me deeper and more mindfully into this cold northern desert that I’ve been living in lately. The editors have collected a thoughtful anthology of writings — poems, essays, memoirs, meditations — exploring five different facets of winter. It’s a good book to practice lectio divina with, short prayerful nudges to set the wandering thoughts in the right direction.

In “Winter as a Time of Sorrow and Barrenness” we consider the inevitability of death in life. Jamaica Kincaid, a Caribbean transplant to New England, rebels against the season which erases her garden from existance. John Jerome, struggling to move a stone wall and build a deck, confronts the onset of age and the loss of his former strength. Robert Finch attends a winter burial and sees in the loss of one elderly resident the gradual death of community memories, the death of human relationships. Winter and mortality are natural twins.

In “Winter as a Time to Be Scoured, and a Time to Succor the Scoured”, we confront our own fragility and vulnerability. Winter “particularly highlights the vulnerability of those who are poor, dispossessed, or struggling on the outskirts” while at the same time, it encourages an increase in communal awareness, compassion, hospitality, and mutual support. The very harshness of the season encourages humans to cling more closely together. Ron Hansen recalls the sweep of death brought on by a great midwestern prairie blizzard, while 18th-century preacher William Cooper reminds his flock “we should keep up a warm love to our neighbor; therefore the colder the season is, the warmer should our charity be.”  And Po Chu-yi, a 9th-century Chinese poet, reflects on the aftermath of a snowstorm —

Bamboos and cypresses all perished from the freeze.
How much worse for people without warm clothes!
… The north wind was sharper than the sword,
and homespun cloth could hardly cover one’s body.
Looking at myself, during these days,
how I’d shut tight the gate of my thatched hall,
cover myself with fur, wool, and silk,
Thinking of that, how can I not feel ashamed?
I ask myself what kind of man am I?

In “Winter as a Time of Shoring Ourselves Up”, we are reminded that Winter is more than just a season of death and hardship. It is also a season of preparation. In the stiff bare twigs, there is life being stored up, awaiting the time to re-emerge. The hard-frozen earth rests from its fertile season, its dormant seeds protected by the blankets of snow which will give up their moisture when the thawing begins. Winter is a time of necessary withdrawal, rest, and preparation for the next spring’s busy growth. But at the same time, Winter itself requires a kind of preparation, if we are to enter into it ready to benefit from this down-time. We bring in the harvest and the firewood, we bring out the winter coats from the attic, we layer on a bit of extra fat for the hibernating season. In these chapters, John Updike writes penetratingly of the layers of bother and burden brought on by winter clothes, Anne Dillard attacks the labor of splitting firewood, and Jane Kenyon puts her garden to bed for winter with a meditation on Robert Frosts’s poem —

No orchard’s the worse for the winteriest storm,
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm…
Keep cold, young orchard, good-by and keep cold.

In “Winter as a Time of Purity and Praise”, I was reminded of that face of Winter I have loved in past years, and lost sight of this year. Here is the sheer beauty of white snowfalls, the cleanness, the sense of open uncluttered space where I stand alone with God in bright endless light. This is Winter in all its freshness. It’s still chilling, but a chill that invigorates rather than kills. It’s still scouring, but it’s a scour that cleanses. in this section, Rachel Carson describes the complex world of seaside birds and fish after a snowstorm with a wonder at the intricate dance of nature, William Vande Kopple takes us into a deeply felt memory of ice-fishing that bound a grandfather and grandson together, and in the Daily Hallel of Jewish prayer we sing praise to God for ice and snow, cold and fog, seeing them among his wonders.

Finally, in “Winter as a Time of Delight and Play”, we return to our childhood, remembering to see winter in ways we usually forget as we grow older. The editors start off this section with a nod to a couple of my favorite childhood books — “It is what Dylan Thomas recalls so lyrically in his A Child’s Christmas in Wales: snowballs thrown at cats and fires … It is what is captured in Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, in which young Peter climbs snowbank mountains, throws snowballs, makes snow angels, and smuggles a snowball into his warm house.” Here we read a reminder, in Mark Knoll’s poem, that while adults groan about snow and think of shovels, children whoop and cheer, thinking of sleds and snowmen —

Cars begin to sputter and curse; one by one
withered white they die
as buttoned, capped, and booted, you and I
go dancing, tromping, dancing by.