Winter is a season for restoring ourselves by slipping into the dark.
It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment. It’s dark all right, come December, month of the longest night, when minute by minute our dot on the globe is darkening. Yet darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention.
Mine is a lonely outpost; December, most everyone else complains, is unbroken darkness. The way I see it, though, maybe the saddest thing is, we’ve blinded ourselves to the darkness. Cut ourselves off from the God-given ebb and flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow. But, mostly, it’s lost on us. The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing. The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo. And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.
Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counter-culturalism, and do not succumb. December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always, but most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday. December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg— finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I
savoring or simply slog- ging along? December invites us to be our most radiant selves.
And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness.
The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer.
I lift the blinds at night so I can watch the snowflakes tumbling. I wind the clock and listen to its mesmerizing tick and tock. I sit, nose pressed to frosty pane of glass, and watch the scarlet papa cardinal peck at berries on the bough. I am practicing the art of being still. Stillness, when you look for it, is never far away, and not too hard to grasp. I find, though, it takes a dose of concentration. And sometimes a stern reminder; I mumble to myself, “Be still now.”
14 BLESSINGS TO STITCH INTO YOUR WINTER HOURS
These blessings are blueprints for beholding the Holy, practicing the art of paying supreme attention. Some are tied to particular dates; others you can sprinkle throughout the month for homegrown encounters with the wonder-filled.
- We have watched, for weeks now, the slow undressing of the world beyond the sill. There is no hiding in the depth of winter. We battle back darkness with the kindling of lights and the stringing of branches with all the glitter we can gather. Look within for truest light.
- Mary Oliver, something of a patron saint of poetry, insisted our one task under heaven’s dome is “learning to be astonished.” She called herself a student, first and most, of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who taught her—and us— that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.” Today, then, is the day we get to work.
- Be blanketed in the holy lull that is the first snowfall.
- Morning incantations at the cookstove: Stir a pot of oatmeal—bejeweled with dried fruits from the pantry—for yourself and the people you love, still tucked under the covers. Blanket each dreamer—and surely your very own self—in blessings for the day as you draw the spoon through bubbling porridge.
- “I love the dark hours of my being / for they deepen my senses … / From them I’ve come to know that I have room / for a second life, timeless and wide.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, Bohemian-Austrian poet (1875–1926)
- Winter solstice: As the solstice brings on winter, celebrate the darkness. Make a bonfire or simply light a candle. Throw a log into the fireplace, listen to the crackle. Tradition has it that fires are sparked on the longest night to help the sun get its job done. Give thought to the life that’s birthed out of darkness.
- Spying the brown-paper packages, tied up in red plaid ribbons, all stacked under the fir tree, put thought to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s certainty: “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”
- Christmas Day (Dec. 25): On the morn of Nativity, wrap yourself in newborn wonder. Awake before anyone else. Light a candle. Look out the window and quietly count your blessings. Fall on your knees, if so moved.
- Boxing Day (Dec. 26): Quiet and dark are invited in, not whisked away, come the season of stillness. Be hushed. Punctuate your afternoon’s walk with a trail of birdseed sprinkled from winter-coat pockets. Take supper by the fire—or near a cove of candles. Fuel on simple soup and sturdy bread. Read stories by firelight. Tuck children into their beds while grown-ups keep vigil deep into the night.
- Survival seed, you might call it. Imbued with animation and sparks of magic, surely. Not a minute after it’s been dumped, the yard’s aswirl with sound and stirrings. On days of arctic chill, it’s the least we can do, to stoke the hearts and bellies of the birds who give flight to the day, who fill the boughs and branches with their scarlet feathers.
- Contemplate the wisdom of essayist Henry David Thoreau, who took up residence in a one-room hermitage deep in the woods of Walden Pond: “If by watching all day and all night I may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”
- Delight in the winged thespians of winter: Keep watch on the flurry of winter’s birds coming in for a landing at the feeder, taking turns, shooshing each other away. Ponder this: “Birds are a miracle because they prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain.” —Douglas Coupland, Canadian novelist
- Revel in the child’s joys of deep-freeze winter: Candy canes and marshmallows populating steamy mugs of hot cocoa, the only hope for luring frost-nipped limbs in from out-of-doors. Consider it sweetened invitation to deepened conversation.
- New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31): “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go out and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” —Howard Thurman, author, theologian, civil rights leader (1899–1981).
Adapted excerpt from The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season by Barbara Mahany with permission from Abingdon Press.