Winter as Passage

I have spoken recently of winter as a time of slowing down, resting, doing things we enjoy for their own sake, and listening to the deepest voices within us. I also spoke of disturbing feelings that need to be listened to and named in a safe place, either in solitude or with a trustworthy other. We may then decide whether or not to express them.

In thinking further about winter, I recall the Greek myth of Persephone and the more recent folk tale of Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant. In the myth, the young woman, Persephone is wandering through the spring flowers. Suddenly, the earth opens up and she is snatched away by Hades, the king of the underworld, the realm of darkness and death. Her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain and the harvest, and all growing things, goes into unconsolable mourning. Nothing then grows and it is winter in all the land. Her daughter is finally restored to her and it is once again springtime. Yet Persephone has eaten four pomegranate seeds while in the underworld and so must return there for four months of every year. During that time, her mother, Demeter, once again goes into mourning, and winter again returns for these four months.

At one level, the myth is telling a story about the recurring seasons of the year. It is also a recognition of our inseparable connection as human beings with the world of nature. This is a theme of Karen Armstrong’s recent book, Sacred Nature, Restoring our Ancient Bond with the Natural World.

At the same time, the myth of Persephone also brings out the notion of inner seasons, winters of the heart. It is a time of dormancy and rest certainly, as expressed in the last two weeks. Yet the story also reflects the experiences and feelings of what we may call the winter of grief or sadness or loneliness in our hearts. While these moments are inevitable, the myth of Persephone also suggests that they are seasonal experiences, and need not last forever. As with Persephone, they remain within us and are part of us, but they do not need to imprison us for life.

As early as childhood, yet often in later life as well, we tend to think that what we are feeling at the moment will last forever. I recall, around the age of six, saying to a neighbour child one morning that I would never play with him again. Not surprisingly, we were back playing together that same afternoon.

In the story of The Selfish Giant, the giant chases away the children playing in his garden and builds a wall around that garden so they cannot enter again. Afterwards, it is always winter there. No birds sing and no flowers grow. In effect, the giant builds a wall around himself and excludes all new life. He becomes frozen in a winter of his heart. Only later, when a crack appears in the wall, do the children once again appear. Then flowers bloom again and birds once more start to sing.

Only when we allow cracks in the walls of our heart is new life and new growth, possible. Only then does a wintry heart give way to spring. I think that the story is saying that we can get stuck in our arrogance or grief or sadness, and live behind their walls. Still, even a small crack of openness or vulnerability can herald a new springtime of the heart.

Later in the story, The Selfish Giant, a different experience of winter occurs. “He [the giant] did not hate the winter now, for he knew that it was merely the spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.” Once again, I think there is a recurring theme. As part of nature, we are seasonal beings. We need a rhythm of activity and rest, of light and darkness, of involvement and renewal. Thomas Merton has called our modern age one of a violence of over-activity, of doing, with no space for being. Wayne Muller writes, too, that for want of rest, we are losing our way; we are missing the quiet that would give us wisdom.

Seasons of sadness and grief are an inevitable part of life, and may be imagined as a winter of life. But they need not be the whole of life. We may allow ourselves gradually to feel the sorrow, name it, perhaps share it, let it be part of us, but not cling to it. We may then grow into a new joy that flows into gratitude and generosity. I have spoken at times of how our pain may first be felt as a prison that envelopes and encloses us. It may then become an identity that names us or by which we name ourselves. Yet finally, it may evolve into a resource that nourishes us and provides the strength to respond creatively to the events of our lives.

The key insight here is that sorrow is an inevitable part o f life. It is important, in a safe place, to feel and name that sorrow and not cling to it. It is also crucial not to build excluding walls around our pain, but to remain open to new life and growth. If we do so, we may discover a renewed joy and meaning on the other side of sorrow. That openness may be the crack that lets in the light.

May all your joys and sorrows gently clear a path behind all walls and let new light enlighten your life and radiate into our world..

Norman King, February 6, 2023