In Praise of Winter
Preached at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, January 2, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Even though it was almost 20 years ago, I shall never forget the day as long as I live. It was winter...I was in Northern Wisconsin with my family...staying at the rustic cabin we own deep in the woods there...Cross Country skiing with my mother and brothers. After a hearty breakfast cooked on the old woodstove, we had skied our way quietly back into the wilderness, to a small, spring-fed lake that was frozen over deep and hard. Sometime around noon, the lake effect snow from Lake Superior began. Now I don't know how many of you are familiar with lake-effect snow, but in that part of the world at least, once it begins it comes steadily and gently...out of a thick, gray, still cloud cover (caused by the moisture of the large body of fresh water...in this case, Lake Superior) and it usually occurs on absolutely windless days...so the large flakes of lake-effect snow shimmer down in huge clumps...dancing through the air in stunning silence and calm...at least that's the way it was that unforgettable day. I remember stopping on my skis (every few minutes or so) not because I was tired (though there is nothing like that warm and sweaty glow a good day's ski will bring on)...I stopped repeatedly just so I could look up, through the towering, bare trees and evergreens, and watch the gently cascading pattern of the silent snow work its patient, friendly way toward earth, finally caressing my face with little, cold kisses. If there is a natural phenomenon in this creation that is more magical...more calming, more healing and beautiful...I do not know it. If there is something called heaven on earth, that silent winter day deep in the Wisconsin woods was as close to it as I have ever come.
Surely you've noticed that not many people in this culture have kind things to say about winter. Most of us badmouth this season...whining about these colder, snowy months, without even spiritually giving the season a chance to bless us with its unique rhythms and realities. To most folks I know, winter is generally understood as a season not to celebrate and enjoy, but to endure or outlast -- something difficult and unpleasant to get through until the better times of Spring. Well...this Wisconsin boy of the heart is passionately convinced that this is a SPIRITUALLY UNFORTUNATE ATTITUDE to have about this season of insistent silence, darkness, calm and negation. While winter is not my favorite season (the barefoot months of summer get that accolade) and while I am always glad when Spring begins to show its green and gladsome face, I do not ever want to wish winter away. There is a rhythmic rightness, and quiet wisdom (dare I say even hushed holiness?) to this stark and stern season, and I believe we are all spiritually poorer if we do not welcome and notice it...deep to its essence.
I do (in a way) pity those barefoot souls who live along this globe's tropical equatorial divide, forced as they (poor devils) are to live in a kind of perpetual, insistent summer...never having to don overcoats, mittens and galoshes to protect themselves against an invigorating chill. Maryland is as far South as I ever wish to live, because I believe winter has deep, quiet, life-saving-and-enriching secrets to teach...and my heart is a ready student.
First, of course, there is the sheer intricacy, beauty, calm of the resting earth in Winter. What a spiritual (and aesthetic) tragedy it is for a human being to stumble through this cold season with his or her head buried deep (ornery and oblivious) in a tightly wrapped scarf! Dear God, look around and see the holy, graceful wonders of this time of year! Go back in your mind's eye (if you will) to that January Wisconsin day I described to you earlier. No other season has (within its miraculous kit bag of surprises and sensations) the power to make you feel a blessed child of earth the way a gentle, silent, snowy day does. Yes, I know a snowfall can make the evening commute an unmitigated nightmare...and I too have cursed under (and over!) my breath at all the inconveniences and irritations that can come with slippery sidewalks, iced-over windshields, power outages and canceled airline flights (not to mention Sunday Services!) But I urge you, this winter season, to SPIRITUALLY SET ASIDE (now and again) all the easy complaints and ready condemnations we usually lodge against this season and find a way to open your heart...bundle yourself up in as many comforting layers as you need, and go outside for a winter's walk...and quietly enter into AN INTIMATE AND INTERACTIVE relationship with what I shall call the VIA NEGATIVA of this season.
Via Negativa. Via = life...Negativa = absence, emptiness, the void, nothingness itself. So Via Negativa is a paradoxical phrase meaning the life that can quietly (yet faithfully) rise out of negation, out of darkness, emptiness and absence to bless and heal us. To me, this time of year (when all of the natural world lies still in retreat beneath ice and cold, and seems perilously close to death and annihilation itself) PULSES YET WITH BEAUTY, ENERGY, AND A LIFE FORCE THAT SINGS WITH THE SUSTAINING POWER OF ANY JULY DAY! Take those bare trees you can see out there [Scott points out the auditorium windows] now reaching so proudly toward the winter sky. Though I revel in the raucous radiance of a tree standing full, proud and green in summer swelter, they are just as alive, pleasing and nurturing to me in Winter when (at sunset) I gaze upon the intricate and precise pattern of their naked branches against the hot orange sky. Via Negativa - life in the absence of life...fullness of being amidst the emptiness...hope and comfort not in busyness...but in starkness...and silence.
Given the kind of person I am, I especially need the deeper, more reflective spiritual lessons winter alone can teach. Although I have only been your minister for a little more than 16 months now, it must be apparent to those who are paying attention that you have a rather "summery" personality on your hands. On the other hand, my mentor and colleague Gene Pickett (who spoke at my installation service last November) is a man who has struggled with loneliness, doubt, fear and depression his whole life - and says so in his wonderful biography entitled "Borne on a Wintry Wind." Gene suggests that people tend either to have a "summery" personality and spirituality (like me - always looking on the bright side, always affirming the gift and opportunity of life) or a "wintry" personality and spirituality (like himself - grounded in an existential awareness of life's many difficulties, sorrows and negations). The biographer writes, "Pickett's personality is simply grounded in the treasures and burdens of a wintry soil, regardless of the time of year." Long ago I realized that one of the reasons Gene and I enjoy and find comfort in one another's companionship is that we are so unlike one another in spiritual and emotional disposition...both need to see the world through the eyes of the other.
What does Gene mean by wintry spirituality? Quoting German theologian Karl Rahner, he describes it as "A faith posture that grapples boldly with uncertainty and ambiguity, with pain and loneliness, and with the mystery of death in order to discover meaning and hope." My colleague the Rev. Bruce Clear of Indianapolis says it a bit more expansively,
"Within the summery sort of spirituality, the freezing winds of winter - the crises and tragedies of life - are to be avoided [in that they distract from the joy of living, which is the true purpose of life.] But those of a wintry sort of spirituality experience life very differently. For them the constant joyfulness of the summer-hearted person is neither honest or possible. For them, integrity means to accept both joy and pain as part of the package that life offers. It is not that the wintry soul welcomes suffering or has a pessimistic outlook on life. But rather the wintry soul refuses to deny the sting that winter chill brings...Winter brings with it a cry of absence...Those of a wintry sort of spirituality feel deeply that absence, but they do not turn away from it."
And Bruce goes on:
"Winter faith is designed for those who feel deeply the unfairness of life...Winter reminds us that [emptiness and] death [are] an integral part of life. A wintry faith is committed to accepting the tragic dimensions of life. It does not seek to transform [wintry] sorrow into [summery] joy, but instead [chooses] to confront sorrow [and negation] on its own terms, and find some meaning within it."
And then commending on winter's great spiritual lesson, Rev. Clear writes, "....winter forces us to confront the fullness of life, and that fullness includes pain. Sometimes it takes a winter's chill to encounter the fullness of life."
This is a spiritual truth this summery guy really needs to take deep into his heart. Winter's unmistakable negation and chill teaches the human heart about the true, full sweep of life and human being. Summer has an easy insistence...but Winter is true. Life is not always like an effortless summer day: ready, easy, carefree and fun. Sometimes silence and emptiness are all that are offered us. Sometimes life lies nearly extinguished deep beneath the snow.
This has already been a hard winter for many in this congregation. There are quite a number of people in this community right now who are struggling with circumstances of tragedy and negation (illness, uncertainly, sorrow, pain, death itself) that are not of their making. Many are struggling amidst personal darkness and hardship to find the VIA NEGATIVA...the meaningful life that is still available to them amidst the emptiness and cold which the random flow of circumstance has brought. In such times, summertime's easy answers make no sense. Wintertime (I believe) teaches us (if we are still and patient...reflective and brave) that in the inevitable times of negation we can...slowly...begin once again to hear the heartbeat of life that remains to bless and sustain us. This winter, dear friends...be still...allow yourself to be still. Listen to this season's hushed and healing rhythm...and in the silence, hear the faithful heartbeat...and know, please know, that life still awaits you...there, beneath the snow...life still awaits.