Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic book A Gift from the Sea emerged from a month Anne spent in silence and solitude on an island on the Atlantic shore following the kidnapping and murder of her son. Anne asks,
How can one learn to live through the ebb-tides of one’s existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave? …So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when the encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing, to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last high tide. Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid. And my shells? I can sweep them all into my pocket. They are only there to remind me that the sea recedes and returns eternally.
During this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on Lindbergh’s words alongside a helpful picture presented by Mark Batterson in his book, Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus in Every Season of Your Soul. Batterson invites us to reflect on the process of maturing that corresponds, interestingly enough, with the annual shifts of season so familiar to us. Our task as apprentices of Jesus is to understand and steward the season in which we find ourselves, which presupposes our ability to name the season in which we find ourselves. Because just as farmers plow and plant in one season, irrigate in another, harvest in another and allow the fields to lie fallow in another, in the formation of our souls there are specific activities that appropriately fit the season, things we may do to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our lives.
The most difficult season of the soul for most is winter. In the Christian year winter corresponds with our observation of Lent. The winter of the soul is bleak, cold, dark, and fruitless. We lack the energy to engage in activities that just recently filled us with joy. Winter is a season of unwelcome brooding, often late at night, robbing us of sleep. Most things feel dead, or appear to be so. The days are short, the nights stretch on and on. Winter never seems to end.
In winter we are tempted to question our faith, to doubt our value. With nothing to show, no “fruit,” no productivity, no outward activity to speak of, we feel as though our worth has shriveled to nothing. God is silent. Friends drift away. The ground goes fallow. All we can do is wait.
In the winter of his soul the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:5-6).
The truth is, God is not in a hurry. When we feel that it is God’s job to respond quickly to our every request, we are on a fast track to disillusionment. Unless our waiting is shaped by the confidence that God is at work, the perceived delay will debilitate us. The season of winter encourages the development of a confident trust that God is at work even if he is not operating within our preferred time frame.
So what is winter about? How may we cooperate with the Spirit’s transforming work in this challenging season of the soul?
Rings and Roots
In winter the focus of a tree turns inward. Fruit falls away. Leaves drop. Yet while the tree appears barren and apparently lifeless on the outside, inside much is happening. In winter the trunk of the tree grows another ring, building its core strength to endure the force of spring storms, stave off blight, and bear the weight of fruit in summer. At the same time, the tree stretches deep, extending and expanding its roots to absorb nutrients and develop a firmer base. In the formation of the soul, rings and roots develop through the practice of core disciplines, like prayer, study, fellowship and service.
Some time ago I heard about a new church that was growing so fast, its founding pastors did not have time to devote to their personal spiritual development. As the scope of ministry grew, the pastor’s core strength to bear the accumulating weight remained underdeveloped. One day, without warning, the entire ministry collapsed. It was a total loss.
The spiritual season of winter is designed to produce the spiritual strength necessary for us to withstand storms and bear the weight of ministry.
Another task unique to winter is pruning. Jesus explained that a strong, fruit-bearing relationship with Him will involve pruning: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:1-2).
While visiting my brother last Christmas, we saw a tree that struck me, initially, as being dead. Someone had cut the wood of the tree deep, lopping off branches right back to the trunk in places. Only a small spattering of leaves remained. Alarmed, I asked my brother if he thought the tree would survive the pruning? He glanced up at it undisturbed, and remarked, “You should see it in spring.”
In winter God pares away all that takes much and gives nothing. When performed properly, come springtime the tree will be better for this pruning: stronger, shapelier, more vigorous, and, above all, more fruitful.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh learned from the rhythm of the sea a lesson that is confirmed in our experience of the turning of the seasons. Every turning of the tide is valid, every turning of the season is necessary to help us mature to the point where we easily and naturally do what Jesus would do in our place.
When author and teacher Brennan Manning was ordained a priest, a friend concluded the service by giving Brennan this unusual blessing:
May your expectations all be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child
and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father,
God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.1
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.