The Spiritual Practice of Wintering

INTRODUCTION:

The nature of the winter reflects God’s nature in myriad ways. If we want to meet God through winter, we need to pay attention.

The hope of this spiritual practice is to help you deeply engage God’s wintering ways—first, through a few short readings (to kindle your imagination), and then via three hands-on spiritual exercises.

READINGS:

“Have you ever travelled to where snow is made, seen the vault
where hail is stockpiled… who do you think is the father of rain and dew,
the mother of ice and frost? You don’t for a minute imagine these
marvels of weather just happen, do you?”
Job 38:22, MSG

“Our knowledge of winter is a fragment of childhood, almost innate. All the careful preparations that animals make to endure the cold, foodless months; hibernation and migration, deciduous trees dropping leaves. This is no accident. The changes that take place in winter are a kind of alchemy, an enchantment performed by ordinary creatures to survive. Dormice laying on fat to hibernate, swallows navigating to South Africa, trees blazing out the final weeks of autumn. It is all very well to survive the abundant months of spring and summer, but in winter, we witness the full glory of nature’s flourishing in lean times. Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.”
– Katherine May, Wintering

“He orders the snow, ‘Blanket the earth!’… No one can escape
the weather—it’s there. And no one can escape from God.
Wild animals take shelter, crawling into their dens, when blizzards
roar out of the north and freezing rain crusts the land. It’s
God’s breath that forms the ice, it’s God’s breath that
turns lakes and rivers solid…”
Job 37:6-13, MSG

THREE WINTERING PRACTICES:

Practice One – Entering into Stillness

“Snowfall is a summons to slow down, to live more in time than against it, to relax and to take account of our surroundings…. the stillness of a winter day, with fewer sounds, and these reduced in volume, also let us hear what we otherwise might not: the voices of children a block away, an unexpected bird, a neighbour’s singing…. Silence expands our hearing and awareness.”
– David Resnberger, The Holiness of Winter

Snow is God’s gift for entering into a silence that can help us attend to his presence.

For this spiritual practice, you’ll have to wait until the next time it snows. When it does, head out to the quietest outdoor place you know. Once you get there, find a secluded location, stop, stand still, and listen. Let the silence expand your hearing and awareness. If you can, try to not move for five minutes. As the silence grows, take note of what you’re hearing. Once your five minutes are done, take out your phone, or a piece of paper, and make a list of what you’ve heard; a bird, snow falling off a branch, the wind, your breath, etc.  

Once you’re done your list enter into the silence of that place again. This time let the silence speak to you—the non-sounds between those other sounds. Let the stillness of that winter place nudge you into the stillness of God. Then listen more deeply. What is God whispering to you in the silence? Write down what comes to mind and carry it with you for the rest of the day (or week).

The silence of winter may be one of God’s most powerful and prevalent words. While we may catch the occasional whisper, most of us are, for the most part, unattuned.

Perhaps the practice of listening in silence could tune us in. What if this way of listening became a spiritual exercise for you every time it snowed? What if you treated every winter storm as a call to worship—as God’s call to draw near, hear, and attend?

Practice Two – Engaging Winter Light

“It is said that Brother Lawrence, whose practice of the presence of God has influenced the spiritual quests of so many Christians, was first drawn to God by the sight of a leafless tree in winter.”
– The Practice of the Presence of God, Pg 14, in Rensberger

What if snow—as it highlights tree branches, increases contrast and uniquely reflects the light—is God’s way of healing our vision; of giving us eyes to see again?

To begin this spiritual practice, start by naming all of the colours you see in this one little piece of ice. (This image comes from a message on The Theology of Ice, and was taken by Dan Lee.) 

Artist Aaron Leighton noted that his favourite colour was white—because it takes on every other colour there is (much like the ice does here).

Jesus said that he was the light of the world (John 8:12). What if winter’s unique capacity to capture and reflect light is meant to remind us of this fact? What if all the white and ice is God’s way of quickening both our visual and spiritual acuity?

So, here’s an exercise you can do: the next time you’re out on a winter walk (and near water) pick up a piece of ice and hold it up to the sun, pay attention to the snow that surrounds you, try to name all of the different colours (ie: shades of white) that the snow takes on. Write a list. And when you get home, take out that list and start to consider all the different ways you reflect God’s light. Write those down too… and then thank Him for all the God-reflective properties he’s built into you.

The last winter-light exercise involves sitting on a bench at your local park, after a snowfall, with the sun in your face. As you sit there, look at the snow and try to notice all of the points of reflected light. If the angles are right, they should be countless!

Then ponder these two questions from God (via the prophet Jeremiah);

“Can anyone hide from me in a secret place?
Am I not everywhere in all the heavens and earth?”
Jeremiah 23:24, NLT

As you consider these questions, while facing those billions of points of light, take note of what you’re sensing about the presence of God. What does it feel like to be seen by God in that place? Write down your response.

Practice Three – Entering into Winter Rest

God created a season where nature rests—plants, trees, the ground, water, and many animals. Through the example of winter, God calls us to rest (just like he rests).

“By the seventh day God had finished his work [of creating]. On the seventh day he rested from all his work. God blessed the seventh day. He made it a Holy Day Because on that day he rested from his work, all the creating God had done. This is the story of how it all started, of Heaven and Earth when they were created.”
Genesis 2:2, MSG

We are made in the image of a God who rests.

Winter reminds us of God’s restful being and it calls us to emulate God’s resting nature.
Winter is a season of sabbath where God extends an invitation to you:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, 
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus in Matthew 11:28-29, NIV

For this last spiritual exercise, you’ll need is to sit in a chair near your favourite window and look outside.

As you do, take note of all the trees that are resting there. Try to name the different species if you can, give them your attention, and get to know them a bit. Then take note of the different ways each tree rests (i.e. deciduous trees vs coniferous). As you consider their resting states, ask yourself what it would mean to follow their lead. Pay attention to all the empty branches where leaves used to be. Is this tree any less a tree in its more dormant state? So why do we often feel guilty (or less) when we choose to rest—to be less productive, fruitful, in leaf. As you consider how difficult it is to stop and rest, keep your eyes fixed on all of those leafless branches. Then, after a few minutes, read Jesus’ restful invitation from Matthew 11 again. If you’re able, memorize the verse as you consider at all the empty, resting, branches.

After a few minutes, close your eyes. Now imagine these same branches a few months from now—bursting into bud and blossoming into new life. As you notice all the green, think about the spring that God will soon give you. Let that hope remind you that times of rest are times of preparation—that God is getting you ready for something new.

End this exercise by reading these promise-filled words of God:

”A green Shoot will sprout from Jesse’s stump,
    from his roots a budding Branch.
The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him,
    the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength,
    the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.
Fear-of-God
    will be all his joy and delight.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    won’t decide on the basis of hearsay.
He’ll judge the needy by what is right,
    render decisions on earth’s poor with justice.
His words will bring everyone to awed attention.
    A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked.
Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots,
    and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.”
Isaiah 11:1-5, MSG

CONCLUSION:

In a recent ‘On Being’ radio interview, Writer Katherine May said,

“What I love about snow is the way that it makes a clean break. It transforms the landscape. Everything’s different. Everything sounds different. The quality of life is different. The light kind of sparkles off it. You know before you open your curtains that snow has landed. And for me, I just think that’s such a gift… it’s a break in the routine. It’s a little bit like a kind of pause… you get to see your world in a different way. And it’s beautiful.”

What if your experience of winter this year was different?

What if you let the season carry this kind of promise in your life?

Perhaps the beauty of this time is God’s gift to us as we wait for this larger pandemic winter to pass.

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