Wintry Spirituality

Some spiritual writers speak of “wintry spirituality” and “summery spirituality.” The former is characterized by lack of reassurance and support, a discouraging dryness or hopelessness, stagnation, doubts about whether a spiritual life is even worth it. The latter is characterized by feelings of joy, nourishment, progress in the spiritual life, and great satisfaction. At different times in our lives we experience one or the other. In fact, it’s possible that the seasons themselves encourage one or the other.As we pass through the vernal equinox whatever wintry spirituality has shaped us the last six months may give way to a more relaxed and luxuriant spirituality. Or maybe not. The inner seasons of our souls are not always in time with the outer seasons of nature.

There are various ways to think about wintry spirituality, but at the moment I’ve been contemplating the idea of Earth as our home and how the seasons reflect our need for home.

During the winter I’m aware of how inhospitable the outdoors can be, and how there is more responsibility on me to make a home of safety and comfort: indoor activities, hearty meals, quiet entertainment, fires in the stove, long nights of dreaming while the wind howls around the corner of the house. So I stay indoors, connected to that interior space which I create and call home. Beira, the cailleach of the winter season, can create an inhospitable world outside, offering very little in the way of comfort or nurturance. Of course, we find beauty and activity outdoors in winter, but we can’t dwell there for very long. The discomfort of cold and dark drives us indoors for warmth and light. And on days of fierce winter winds or blizzard conditions or extremely cold temperatures, we really can’t be out at all.

Summer, on the other hand, lures me out of the house. Summer presents the outdoors itself as a kind of home, and I spend more time out there. I can luxuriate in nature’s unbounded hospitality. In the warm months and long days I can find food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, and music in the music place outdoors. To use Wordsworth’s phrase, it is the “hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” And the Female Presence at the heart of reality becomes a gracious and loving mother.

In his poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost suggests that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I can imagine that in winter the cailleach is saying to me when I have to go outside, “No, I won’t take you in. You must create your own home and stay in it.” In some respects she can’t take us in and offer hospitality because it is her nature to dwell in harsh weather and harsh landscapes. Her home is not our home. And this quite naturally unnerves us because we think of Earth as our home. And so we grow more aware of how fragile human life can be, how we depend on so much from the natural world to keep ourselves alive. In winter or in wintry spiritual moments, we understand more fully how forces in the natural world can bring about our deaths.

There is a terrifying indifference about the cailleach of winter. The kind of indifference mystics have described in periods of spiritual dryness. The awesome silence of God. The total absence of God. In one tale about the cailleach, she unabashedly admits that she doesn’t have to help everyone. She can pick and choose those on whom she’ll bestow her favors. In wintry moods I sometimes wonder if Earth, with severe climate changes and disrupted life patterns, will continue to be our home. Or will Earth become ever more the abode of the cailleach and uninhabitable for us? All of us? Some of us? Who will endure and survive?

We may be forced into the spiritual practice of those who sought fierce landscapes such as deserts and mountains precisely because they strip us down of everything we thought we could rely on and hold onto. They leave us naked and exposed. Exposed to the absence of God and our feelings of being abandoned by God. In the spirit of those desert dwellers who found a spiritual hermitage in wildness and wastelands, we may have to embrace the dry, inhospitable landscape and allow a wintry silence to fall upon our souls.

In an earlier Rivercurrent (“Hag” and Other Frightening Words posted 2/18/2008) I wrote about the endurance of the cailleach bringing cleansing, purity, and renewal. Enduring the absence of the Divine can also bring renewal of spirit as mystics of all religious traditions have attested. The dark nights of the soul reduce us to our basic helplessness, to a humble admission that we are not in control, even of ourselves. In those moments we fall into the abyss. And in the abyss we perish or emerge renewed.

This kind of renewal may mean accepting the possibility of homelessness on some level. In the early Irish Christian tradition there were three forms of martyrdom: red, green, and white. Red martyrdom is witnessing to your faith by dying; green martyrdom by giving up material possessions to live a life of austerity and poverty; white martyrdom by leaving Ireland, relinquishing your claims on home to live as a wanderer and an exile. Red martyrdom is the toughest for obvious reasons, but the green and white martyrdom do not come easy either, especially to Americans who live lives of such great comfort, convenience, and affluence. And what’s more, we feel ourselves entitled to this way of life. Every American dreams of owning a home.

If Earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable, unable to sustain life, we may have to willingly accept exile or poverty or life in a fierce landscape. Millions of people today are homeless for a variety of reasons, some of them ecological. Media images of them in refugee camps may be giving us a glimpse of an awful future. We may have to embrace homelessness either literally or spiritually. We may need to welcome the cailleach into our homes, welcome her into our lives, welcome her hardships and suffering into our souls. We have stories about this.

The frightening Hag Mother seeks shelter for the night, a “home” where they have to take her in. She finds five brothers camped in a sheltered place. The youngest opposes his older brothers in their refusal to give the old woman refuge and allows her to stay with him. He embraces her, kisses her, and makes love to her. In the morning it’s this young man who is renewed and transformed, for he is promised kingship by the old woman. And she too is transformed into a woman of great beauty because of the young man’s affection for her. However we cut it, love is the path to renewal. Love and acceptance. Love shown in deeds, not words.

The hag at our door is the embodiment of wintry spirituality. It’s hard to let her in, but we must. Or if we go out, it’s to let her strip us to be exposed, frozen, and reduced to our basic helplessness. Either way, we meet her, embrace her, and if we endure this, we are renewed.

Celtic tales say that this wintry cailleach leaves now at the vernal equinox, headed off to the Green Island in the west where she drinks from a sacred well and renews herself. She too will endure and bring renewal to Earth. The prospect ahead is bright with warm, long days, and enjoyable outdoor activities when all the world seems to be our rightful home. The Mother of Abundant Life returns. Summery spirituality is on the rise. And when we have to go outside, we find a welcoming home outdoors. And we feel that she wants to take us into it.

Unless of course the seasons of your inner life are not in sync with the outer world. Then set your clock back, build another fire in the stove, and wait for the knock at the door.

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