A Wintry Life

“Traggi un suono di crudo lamento (Draw a lament of raw sound); O t’ispiri il Signore un concento che ne infonda al patire virtù! (Or else let the Lord give us the strength to bear our sufferings!) (Act 111, Va Pensiero. From the lyrics of Nabucco by Temistocle Solera)

For many of us, winter means many things. It is a time of icy days and nights. It is also a period of freezing rain and cold wind. Winter means darkness. Winter for many speaks of death and is a sign of barrenness when leaves fall to the ground and begin to rot. It is the time when trees are bare, grasses are dried and the soil is icy mud. The cold wind forces many to stay in the house where the fireplace keeps them warm. Indeed, for almost of us, winter is not a welcome season.

Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD] during the winter months is caused by the lack of ample sunlight and overproduction of melatonin. Humans have the lowest levels of serotonin during winter. The serotonin low levels generate sadness, depression and, in extreme cases, suicidal tendency. Thus, the combination of low levels of serotonin and increased amounts of melatonin precipitates SAD.

Winter was not a welcome season either to our ancestors in faith. In ancient times, the Hebrews did not have in-house heating systems. To keep warm, everyone had to cover the head and neck with thick clothing and, as much as possible, stay away from the cold weather. The last degree of degradation is to have “no covering in the cold” (Job 24:7). Jesus warned his followers to prepare for the end-time. “Pray that your flight be not in the winter” (Mt 24:20). It is an admonition in order that nobody should be turned away from home, forced to live in caverns and travel when the roads are in their worst condition. Journeying under such conditions is hazardous.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re planning it,” wrote Etty Hillesum. Five years ago, my first major wintry disruption — or my dark nights — happened when I underwent a quintuple bypass in 2008. On the eve of my 70th birthday in 2009, I fell at work and suffered a subdural hematoma that rendered my legs and fingers partially paralyzed. On July of the same year, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Adding insult to injury, my condominium was put up on short sale. My active physical activities and financial plans had all been derailed.

After 47 years of service to the Lord and the Church, when I looked back at my “then” and contrasted it with my “now,” I know I have arrived at the “winter” of my life. Physically, I am no longer that energetic priest I used to be. During my younger priestly years in the Philippines, I traveled miles to get to my appointments, deliver talks at different Cursillo houses, say three or four Masses on Sundays at different barrio chapels and, on various occasions, conduct recollections and retreats.

Now I am merely contented with doing the few stressful and challenging priestly tasks. This negative feeling gets to me. The frustrations eat up, little by little, my health and well-being. Like the miners of old, who horribly disliked arsenic because it terribly impaired their health, I had nothing but utter abhorrence toward the wintry disruptions in my life.

Father Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., comfortably loved writing books, conducting retreats, and giving conferences until he was appointed Provincial Superior of his religious order. He wrote,

There is something in a planned life that needs to be, for one’s own good, perennially sabotaged by interruptions. I am less glib in quoting them now, given that my own life has just been derailed by a major interruption.

No matter how hard we try, at all times the music is interrupted. Karl Rahner once wrote that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we begin to realize that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” To deny this is to make life miserable. We wallow in anger with self and others; we lose faith. To accept this reality is to mature in spite of the wintry darkness and the disruptions.

Heuristic faith, according to Henri Nouwen, is clinging to what a person believes against all odds. He wrote,

So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless; at peace while I am tempted, safe while still anxious; surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”

Throughout Christian theology and mysticism, accounts of wintry darkness abound. It is an ancient belief, known as apophatic or negative theology, that defines God in what he is not. Our lives and those of the saints are no exception; they are often interrupted by God’s absence.

In her letters written during the 1950s and 1960s to her spiritual directors, Mother Teresa of Calcutta revealed her innermost feeling of abandonment, “. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” Yet, in the middle of her dark nights, she turned her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God.

Even her namesake, St. Thérèse of Lisieux confessed,

You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.

In spite of the winter-like coldness of her dark nights, she died with a complete trust and ardent love of God.

Ludwig Von Beethoven’s life is a classic example of triumph over tragedy and from tragedy. Having become deaf, Beethoven contemplated suicide, but did not proceed with it; rather he transformed his turmoil to fruitfulness. During his dark nights, he composed the Fifth Symphony (in C minor), equally as great as Handel’s Messiah, the Ninth Symphony (in D minor) and the Missa Solemnis.

After she reflected on the barrenness, darkness and coldness of winter, Barbara Hobbs came up with this prayer:

Dear God of all Seasons, you have gifted me with my weakness, emptiness-with-winter moments, days, months in my life. I am so blind! I missed the lesson of the bare tree. I need to be stripped so that your Spirit can work within. I saw only weakness, only barrenness, only loss. I failed to see the strength in those uplifted branches, in that tiny seed. I failed to see your love in those around me, those who bear their winters patiently, and those whose lives touch mine and who offer a glimpse of You. Forgive me, Lord. Amen.

The negative elements of my “wintry life” become the fertile ground for God to animate me again with his Spirit as he did 47 years ago. If life begins at 40, then this “winter” of my priestly life is a new beginning. Yes, the “winter” of one’s life, especially that of a priest, may be depressing. But the promise of a new spirit in ministry calls me again; a hope for a renewed life awaits me even with my fading physical agility. Today, I have more time to reminisce with delight about the blessings of good old days and the struggles to remain holy.

Toward the end of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a priest, dressed in colorful vestments, is lifted on the shoulders of the people, in the form of a human pyramid. Suddenly the human pyramid collapses, and the priest falls, as well as the glass chalice. As he walks away, a group of children start singing, “Praise, Praise, Praise.” The priest looks at the broken chalice and then comments: “I never realized that broken glass could shine so brightly!” Truly, broken glass of winter could shine! TP

Msgr. Gutierrez is a priest of the Diocese of Malolos, Bulacan, Philippines. He is a retired federal prison supervisory chaplain and lives in San Diego, Calif. He is the author of five books, and is a weekly columnist for The Asian Journal of San Diego.