Chaplain's Corner: Spiritual Winter – Spiritual Spring
April is the first full month of spring, a time of deliverance from the gloom of winter. This year, for Christians, April is also the holiest festal period of the year. For them, the reason for the sanctity of this holy season is the triumphant joy of Christ’s Resurrection, a deliverance which followed the depth of forsakenness he experienced during his passion when he prayed while hanging on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps 21: 1, Mt: 27:43).
Few realize this psalm’s closing verses end in the joyous hope in the reign of God: “Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn (Ps 21: 30-31)” Deliverance is also the theme of the Passover celebrated by the Jewish people-in April this year. After years of slavery God rescued His people from the domination of the tyrannical Pharaoh and led them into the promised land and redemption. Moses told the Pharaoh: “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness …’” (Ex 7:16).
Eastern Christians use the word Pascha for Easter. Pascha, is derived from Greek usage and is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover: pesach. The words of Psalm 68 are relevant to both traditions:
“Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him! As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before fire, let the wicked perish before God! But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy!” (1-3)
Even behavioral scientists (Haidt, 2005, Seligman, 2002) who focus on the psychology of happiness which emphasizes contentment and hope, note that courage, persistence and bravery in the face of adversity, the winter periods of our lives, are characteristics that have to be cultivated in order to have a pleasant, good and meaningful life. In other words, winter has to precede spring. Coping with psychological and spiritual winter, for example, means one has to learn that he/she can function, with hope toward a more joyous future (Morelli, 2006), even while in a fearful, anxious state of feeling abandoned or being enslaved.
In clinical or pastoral practice, I follow the clinical example of Ellis, (1962) and give my patients or parishioners a ‘shame exercise’. A simple task like shouting out the time of day every couple minutes in a department store can be quite a learning experience that the effects of anxiety are not dire and need not be final. I always point out that anxiety can be carried around with you like luggage. One can still get about even while anxious and soon it can become weakened. The more such ‘brave’ behavior is practiced, the easier it becomes to be brave. On the other hand, doing something for someone who can learn to do it for themselves strengthens their disability. (Morelli, 2009). It keeps them in spiritual winter. In the words of St. Paul : “[What] is sown in weakness, is raised in power.” (1Cor 15:43). It can be ”raised in power” only if the winter is engaged and coped with. Morelli, 2008).
A steady, sustaining, godly motivation for bravery or courage during spiritual winter is shown us by the Old Testament prophets. Moses persevering in the face of opposition to deliver his people to a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 13:5), and Daniel during the persecutions of the Jews under the Persians, who was told by God’s angel: “ ‘O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, ‘Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.’ ” (Dn 10:19).
For Christians, meditating on Jesus, enduring the depths of spiritual winter out of love for us, undergoing suffering and crucifixion, and thereby conquering sin and death that we can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4) can be strengthening. Such reflections can be critical in leading us from spiritual winter into spiritual spring.
Starting with this Paschal season, meditating on two life-lesson beatitudes proposed by the great Eastern Christian Church Father St. Ephraim the Syrian, (1997) can be an aid in moving bravely through Winter into Spring:
Blessed is the man who has attained endurance, for a long-suffering man is great in understanding.
Blessed is he who walks a straight path, for he will enter heaven wearing a crown.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.
Haidt, Jonathan (2005). The Happiness Hypothesis. NY: Basic Books.
Morelli, G. (2006, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity.
Morelli, G. (2008, August 02). Patient Endurance.
Morelli, G. (2009, February 08). Good Marriage XV: Ensnared by mindless helping.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. NY: Simon and Schuster.
St. Ephraim the Syrian. (1997) The Spiritual Psalter. (Br. Isaac E. Lambertsen, Trans.). Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press.