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. 

Prun­ing

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.
(Romans 15:13)

[1] Quot­ed in John Ort­berg, All the Places to Go, p.159

Pho­to by Fab­rice Villard

Originally published February 2016

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