by Joyce Tompkins
Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.
You can write to Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org
I lived in Wisconsin for more than seven years, five blocks from Lake Michigan. Our first winter there, I carried my children - two toddlers and a baby- to the car between icy walls of white that reached up to my neck. The windchill that Feburary hit 76 below zero.
I remember bundling them up in their jackets, hats, hoods,mittens, scarves, snowpants, facemasks and boots, then dashing through the Arctic blasts with one child at a time clutched in the slippery arms of my goosedown parka. The trick was to go as fast as possible without slipping or dropping my precious cargo onto the icy ground where any inch of exposed skin would suffer immediate frostbite.
I still remember their eyes peering out from their brightly striped facemasks in shocked disbelief as I belted them into their car seats, any tears or teething drool already frozen onto their chapped faces. I still remember the adrenaline of motherhood in that climate. It was much too cold, and much too dangerous, to cease from constant prayer.
Nothing like that adrenaline called for here in Philadelphia. Again, today, the weather report forecasts the "wintry mix." Thisis an uninspired blend of sleet, rain, freezing rain, and slush. On some days, it may mix itself with little ice balls that bounce in an entertaining manner on the mud before blending into the gray-brown landscape. But no snow. No winter wonderland of icecastles, sparkling crystals, frosty fairylands. And no ferocious blasts of arctic air off the lake that threaten to knock me breathless, forcing me to pull myself up to my full womanly stature and face the elements with the courage of a Mother Lion.
No, winter here is gray-brown. The sky is gray-brown. The mud is gray-brown. The grass is gray-brown. The trees are gray-brown. My skin is gray-brown. My soul is gray-brown. Did I mention the color, gray-brown? Such dullness seems a difficult state in which to live the spiritual life. Give me challenge and adversity any day - I will rise to the occasion. Mountaintop glories, temptations in the wilderness, battles with the demons - bring them on!
Day after day of ordinary, uninspired dullness seems to leach the color out of any spiritual exercise. Perhaps that is where the idea of Lenten disciplines first originated - the desire to provide a challenge in the long, dull, faceless days of Lent. Which so often fall inFebruary. Which tempt me with their lack of color into forgetting I have any spiritual practice at all. Which tempt me into neglecting that most important practice - the practice of the presence of God.
So I am training myself to look more closely at the gray-brown muddiness. God formed us out of that slimy stuff to begin with. So perhaps there is some creative juice at work that is lost on my eyes, so long accustomed to drama and brightness. There are roots tangled in the mud - gray-brown roots, true, but roots that go deep after some sustenance. There are rocks in there - gray-brown, but flecked with pattern, suggesting some passionate transformation in the hot depths before they found their long rest here on this dullsurface. And there are shoots. Yes, shoots, in February! Something I never even dreamed of seeing in those bracing Wisconsin days. The shoots are gray-brown, of course, but with just the tenderest hint of green.
New life is already stirring itself in the dull mud. God is faithful. It is my eyes, forgetting their looking, that have broken the promise. "And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." G.M. Hopkins