Lessons in Winter

February 23, 2020 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Our Gospel reading today from Matthew is read each year before the beginning of the Lenten Season.  It is a story that takes place towards to the end of Jesus’ public life when he’s heading to Jerusalem.  He understands in some way what is before him and in many ways, it is an experience of a spiritual high before he faces a great deal of suffering.  It is a description of a literal mountaintop moment and also serves as a metaphor for us, of the times when we feel closest to God, and yet, much like for Jesus and his followers, these moments don’t last.  We need to be alert for them; we can be attentive to these experiences when they come and reflect on their meaning in our lives.  Let us pray, O Holy One of the mountaintops and of the valleys, we ask that you open our minds and our hearts to your wisdom this day and in the moments that unfold before us.  Amen.

In this story of the Transfiguration, the followers of Jesus want to stay up on the mountaintop.  Who doesn’t want to savor such experiences of great joy or spiritual oneness?  And yet, Jesus, ever the teacher, says, no we need to go back down the mountain and return to our friends, to the communities who are yet waiting for a word of hope.  What this experience teaches us is that God suffuses all of creation, that God is everywhere, not just in the high moments, but in all the moments of our Days.  It is not just that God is ‘up there’ or ‘in me’ as Rev. Bill Kenneally points out, “it’s that God is everywhere and that indeed, everything is filled with the light of God which they witnessed up on the mountaintop, even when we don’t always see it.  We see it in small moments; we call that the foretaste of what is to come.”  Many spiritual individuals have described such experiences of being at One with our Creator; many spend their lives seeking to feel that or to have a repeat experience of it once they have realized it.

There are various spiritual practices that help us to be more aware; we learn from meditation or contemplative prayer, from yoga and other practices that it’s not something that is achieved and then with us.  It’s the journey that is important; not a once and done kind of thing.

We’ve spoken before about the ways in which the seasons provide us with glimpses of the Holy.  Each season has its own lessons, its own challenges, its own gifts.  Each season gives us a foretaste of paradise if you will.  Morgan Fite writes about what she calls Living in the Season.  This piece caught my attention, because I think you know by now that as much as  I was born and raised in Maine, winter is not my favorite season. Believe me, I love beautiful winter evening and the gentle snowfall, even walks outside on a brisk winter day, but for me, winter just lasts way too long.  And so, as we look ahead to the month of March which tends to break the hearts of many, even those who really enjoy winter, I know I need to be more Zenlike in my approach.  So, when I discovered this piece by someone who shared similar views, I was interested in her reflections. She writes, “It all started when I heard someone speak on the importance of knowing (and living from) the season you’re in. They talked about how it’s useless to try to live like you’re in a season that you’re not yet in, or even one you’re no longer in. That if you try to live in a season you’re not yet in, you aren’t going to have the tools or experiences you need to walk it out well. If you’re still trying to live from a season you’re no longer in, you’re probably settling for something  less than where you could be if you actually just lived from the season you’re in.”  Fite continues, “I would venture to say that there are lessons to be learned and beauty to be found right where you are. In the midst of process.  I’ve been in the process of finding beauty, hope, and joy in my least favorite season – a season I considered lifeless, stagnant, and bitter.“  As an artist, she created a series of paintings entitled, Lessons In Winter, which have allowed her to seek out and be present to the spiritual lessons of this season.

Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat also shared some reflections on Spirituality in Winter, writing  “There are many moods and meanings to the season of Winter. The weather and the darkness affect our feelings. The rhythm of our lives changes, and we spend more time inside savoring the warmth. We relish the chance to slow down and to have some solitude.

We in the north are used to plunging temperatures, slush and snow, and snowplows on city streets and slippery highways. But there is also the other side of Winter: its pristine beauty and its many opportunities for playfulness.

The great Christian monk Thomas Merton once compared the spiritual life to the search for a path in a field of untrodden snow: “Walk across the snow and there is your path.”

I wonder what lessons each of you has gleaned from winter.  What mountaintop moments have you perhaps experienced?   Winter teaches us much about patience, about accepting the reality of weather conditions that may delay or prohibit our plans for our own safety.  We realize that the weather is simply out of our control and we will need to wait until it improves or the roads improve or it is safe to venture outside.  Just a couple of weeks ago, many of us lost power and internet with the ice that began to accumulate on the trees and wires outside our doors.  I can’t tell you how many people expressed how frustrated they were in losing their ability to go online or watch tv, and yet, it passed and we realized how incredibly fortunate we are. At these times, we realize that there is something much larger than ourselves at work and that winter, at least in the northern climes, is when we are most reminded of that.

There are many unexpected gifts in winter.  The morning after that ice collected, we awoke to see unsurpassed beauty outside of our windows as the ice glistened on the trees in the sun’s rays.  It was an exceptional sight, so full of beauty and magic.  A foretaste….  Living with a teacher and with two children still in high school, another great joy of winter is the snow day.  And we don’t have to be in school to enjoy a snow day; let’s face it.  How many of us feel delight when a commitment we had made has been canceled due to the weather and we discover we have hours ahead of us with nothing scheduled. Such joy…a great opportunity to just be and rediscover the childlike magic of a winter day.

I’ve spoken in the past about the Danish tradition of Huege.  Huege describes the many cozy traditions which we incorporate into our days, the wonderful ways we can care for ourselves and create a living space that allows us to feel comfort and safety, to feel at home in the deepest sense.  Huegge includes wood fires and hot chocolate, woolen socks and mittens, cozy throw blankets and soothing colors, candles lit during dinner…all the small joys we weave into our lives and into our homes to bring us comfort. And, of course, how wonderful to experience them on a solitary day or to be surrounded by friends and family in such moments….both equally important.   And these remind us that we do need to take care of ourselves, that our Creator wants us to be surrounded by love and light, by comfort and warmth.  And, of course, we are reminded that we need to care for those who do not have these very important things in their lives.

Winter has special significance in the Christian tradition, writer Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch explain in Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season:

“This is a season that, in making us aware of our individual vulnerabilities, encourages a communal understanding; the winter, with its incipient danger and threat, reminds us of those most vulnerable to such threats. So it is entirely appropriate that for many religions Christians, one of the hallmarks of the winter feasts is the celebration of hospitality.  For Christians, winter is the season in which God shows hospitality to humankind through the incarnation, but it is also the season in which we are enjoined to reflect that hospitality by opening hearts and hands to God and neighbor.”

People of all traditions can transform the isolation and chills of the winter season by offering hospitality to others through dinner parties. We can invite somebody we don’t know very well when we find ourselves hosting a gathering.  And we can discover how we may support the “hospitality” organizations that are providing food, shelter, legal, and financial services to homeless people, immigrants, and refugees.

We are invited to be present to both the literal and figurative seasons of our lives.  God is not only on the mountaintop but walking with us in each moment, including the ones we savor and the ones we find the most challenging.  May we be open to the lessons this season provides and look for the gifts of these days.  Our God is with us…