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Embracing Winter

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“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.”- Aristotle

I am writing this blog post, cozy and warm in my house, in the middle of February, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, which is home to about 450 Moravians. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania, just north of Bethlehem, I have lived in Edmonton for the past five years – and I have fallen in love with this place.

Last week, temperatures during the day averaged -20 fahrenheit. It was cold. And it was also fun – when the environment challenges you, life becomes an adventure. Of course, I’m grateful for my warm home, and mindful of those who live or work outside.

Image courtesy of Jame Lavoy.
This picture is of the Edmonton skyline, taken on February 9, and features “ice fog” rolling over the river that flows through the city.

I have found that people who make Edmonton home have a tendency to make light of the cold. Last week, I was planning a hiking trip with some friends for late May. We all rushed to make the same joke: “It’s late May… the snow might be gone by then.”

The Cree, one of the nations of indigenous people who have inhabited the Edmonton region for thousands of years, mark six seasons throughout the year, contrasted to the conventional four that eurocentric people observe: spring, summer, autumn, freeze, winter, thaw. [1] Edmonton has six seasons, half of which are related to winter.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, I found winter to be a time to hibernate. For a quarter of the year, I avoided going outside, driving, and generally living my life. Winter was a challenge to get through, to overcome. But here in Edmonton, winter is a time to embrace. Most people I know, here, have a winter sport they enjoy; they have a whole closet full of warm and cozy clothing; they “winterize” their gardens and outdoor living spaces, and put blankets in every room of the house. There is no such thing as a “snow day” – or perhaps, every day is a snow day.

Image courtesy of Jame Lavoy.
This is a picture of my dog, Geo, in his winter clothing.

Learning to change my attitude toward winter has also caused me to come into a new understanding of a spirituality of winter.

Deep-freeze winters were not something that Jesus and his followers could have had an appreciation for, living so close to the equator. During a “winter” in Galilee, they might have been preparing to harvest a cold-tolerant crop, rather than breaking out their ice-fishing augers.

And yet, there is something about winter that makes me contemplative, more than any other season. Sure, in the spring I utter many prayers of gratitude: “Thank you, God, for this beautiful day!”, there is something about the winter that makes me slow down, pause, and notice all that is around me.

Despite Jesus’ lack of winter literacy, the great spiritual thinkers and dreamers that followed him have prepared us to embrace winter as a spiritual season. Thomas Merton, the American monk and theologian, wrote,

The woods have all become young in the discipline of spring: but it is a discipline of expectency only. Which cut more keenly – the February sunlight or the air? There are no buds. Buds are not guessed at or thought of this early in Lent. But the wilderness shines with promise. The lnd is dressed in simplicity and strength. Everything foretells the coming of the holy spring. I had never before spoken so freely or so intimately with woods, hills, birds, water, and sky. On this great day, however, they understood their position and remained mute in the presence of the Beloved. [2]

Winter is a time when we slow down, and cuddle up with friends and family we love. There is no need to “put on a show” for others; instead, we can be authentic to ourselves, and wrestle with the thoughts and feelings that the Holy Spirit plants in our mind. Winter is a time when we remember that life is precious and fragile – there is no room for pretense.

As Merton describes, there is something mystical about going for a solitary walk in the winter, where the snow “crunch, crunches” under you and centres you, and the icy cold wind invigorates you. I had a powerful experience like this at Camp Van Es, the Moravian Church Camp outside of Edmonton.

Image courtesy of Jame Lavoy.
This is a picture of the chapel at Camp Van Es.

It was mid-November, 2014, and my first ever snowfall living in Edmonton. I had been getting to know some of the local youth group at their fall retreat. Inside, there was a lot of energy, rambunctiousness, and joy. Young friends who hadn’t seen each other since summer camp were back together again! But outside, as my feet crunched against the snow, I was able to more clearly process all the emotions that I was feeling: nerves, after meeting 40 new people; anxiety – where had I just moved to?; excitement about my new ministry; joy – feeling like I was home among family, having met so many new sisters and brothers; and contentment, doing my best to live out God’s call and dream for me. Only in the quiet, cold stillness of winter was I able to process these things, hold them all in tension, and be grateful.

So, I invite you to embrace winter as a spiritual practice. Each day as you go out, see the slush, and feel the north wind blow, I want you to pause and say a prayer of gratitude for the day. You are then permitted one “Game of Thrones / Beyond the Wall / Winter is Here” joke. After that, undertake this winter examen: contemplate, for yourself,
a) where you are noticing God at work, even in the winter,
b) remember the most powerful feelings you have felt earlier in the day, or yesterday, process them, and commend them to God,
c) notice if there are opportunities for you to draw closer to God, and
d) discern what God is calling you to do, now, even as the streets are icy, your coat is heavy, and the snow crunches under your feet.

[1] http://www.kayas.ca/sixseasons.html

[2] Merton, Thomas, When the Trees Say Nothing, Writings on Nature, “Winter”. Ave Maria Press, 2003

About the Author

Image courtesy of Jame Lavoy.

Rev. James Lavoy is pastor with Rio Terrace Community Moravian Church, and a member of the Northern Province, Canadian District Board. He and his husband, Tabor, live in Edmonton, Alberta. James previously served with Calvary Moravian Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and was raised at Newfoundland Moravian Church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania.

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