Arctic winds blasted much of the Midwest last week. I saw an article that mentioned many cities faced temperatures lower than even Antarctica this time of year–yes you heard me right Antarctica! Along with the frigid weather, having a newborn in the household limits the amount of places we are able to travel. Cabin fever set in.
Cramped quarters, cold temps, and little to no change in daily routine make the perfect recipe for depression to set in. Every year the months of January, February, and March present this challenge. Sadly, I always seem to be surprised when the winter woes arrive. I yearn for warmer days and hope on the horizon. Below are three simple tips to help you fend off the winter woes.
1. Nothing Lasts Forever: it is important to recognize that all things in life–good or bad– are temporary. If this winter appears extra long it is helpful to remind yourself that winter will NOT last forever.
2. Reflection: The average American is flooded with technology on a regular basis. It is rare for me to see a person without a smart phone or iPad in tote. Heck, I am actually writing this post on my own iPhone! The constant stream of screens and technology provide only increases during the winter when going outside to enjoy is not feasible.
A habit that I have re-started this winter is to make time for silent reflection. Cardinal Sarah wrote in The Power of Silence,
Without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent. Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost. The earth then rushes into nothingness” (80).
Reading the Scriptures for a few minutes to begin the day greatly helped shift my mind off the dreariness of the cold toward the hope found in Christ. Silent prayer need not take up half of your day, but perhaps simply start with only five minutes of silent reflection.
3. Exercise Your Muscles (and Patience): Along with taking perspective that winter will not last forever and taking a small amount of time for prayer, exercise is another key strategy to fight off depression in during the cold and dark months of the year. If your 2019 resolution was to get healthier, today is no better time to remind yourself of that goal! The great American founder and third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson spoke of exercise in this way, “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” If the cold keep you from walking outside, think of ways you could walk around your home or apartment. Create a circuit between the rooms of your living space. Perhaps, travel to the grocery store and walk up and down the aisles–even the aisles of items not on your list.
In addition to winter being a time to remind yourself to exercise physically, it is equally important to strengthen yourself spiritually. Use the ‘annoyances’ of the season as chances to grow in patience. Allow yourself to pray for patience when bad driving pervades the streets or when your children drive you crazy because of being cramped up indoors. According to the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Ask for the gift of patience from the Holy Spirit. See how the winter doldrums might be transformed into something beautiful!
The Catechism tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC 540). This year I already experienced time in the wilderness not only in the spiritual sense, but in a tangible way as well. As a child, I used to think that the desert only referred to geographic areas with intense heat and little rainfall. However, reflecting on the information I learned from high school geography class and confirmed by Dictionary.com, a desert technically speaking is defined as: “any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.” Winter 2018 certainly calls into question about whether the United Stated Midwest could be argued to be categorized as a deserted place!
Along with experiencing a physical harshness of climate and barrenness of life during the wintertime, I undergo periods, especially the last couple weeks, of dryness or barrenness in my spiritual life. Spiritual aridity is a topic that I related started to learn about. Saint including, but not limited to, Teresa of Calcutta, Sister Maria Faustina, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross guided me toward a more mature spirituality and to realize that dryness in prayer is not necessary an indictment on a person instead souls undergo periods of purgation to deepen one’s relationship with God. St. John of the Cross, (whose feast day is actually today!) most recently helped avoid me wandering and oriented me toward a mindset that marvels at the Providence of God despite sojourning in the desert of life. Below I wish to share three specific ways Christians will be able to avoid wandering and to start wondering in the desert of life.
Omnipotent Oases: The great founding father of America Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Traveling in the desert this insight goes without saying. Quenching of thirst quickly becomes of utmost importance. In a desert certain fertile areas exist that surround a water source—oases. Venturing to an oasis is akin to the 1849 gold rush as water is an invaluable resource in a barren land. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He promises her the possibility of living water. While it is not speaking of physical water, because humanity still needs that to survive the Christ is referring to the sacraments as being sources of God’s graces.
These omnipotent oases never dry up. We need only be willing to travel to the wellsprings to receive God’s grace. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1210,
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life:1 they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.
I wish to share an example of a recent encounter at a well of God’s grace–the Sacrament of Confession. At the conclusion of a long and particular tough week, both physically and spiritually, I realized I needed to do something about my anger issues and lack of patience at home. Traveling to a nearby local Catholic Church I confessed my sins to the priest. Standing in Personi Christi [standing in the Person of Christ] the priest had the authority to forgive my sins through the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the New Testament, Jesus conferred this power to his Apostles–the first Catholic priest– in John 20:22-23. After receiving the healing graces from this sacrament, I returned home with a greater defense and ability to encounter the temptation of anger and impatience head-on.
2. Follow the Caravan: A second tip that I discovered that helped me withstand the sandstorms [no pun intended] and desolation of life is to unite myself with others in community to not only discuss my struggles but to celebrate the joys of life. Sojourning with others assists me in the journey of life. It is not a coincidence that the source and summit of the Christian life involves communal worship in the sacrament of the Eucharist within the Mass. The Church reminds us in CCC number 1369, “The whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ.”
Along with weekly attendance of the Mass, smaller forms of community sustain me during periods of desert-like desolation in my spiritual life. A friend of mine actually reached out to me unsolicited to see if I needed assistance. “I know that you are going through a tough time now Matt, I was wondering if you wanted to get together for dinner or a drink sometime. Know that I am hear for you if you need to talk about things.” This was a text message that I received a few days ago. Truly, the Holy Spirit worked in my friend’s heart to reach out to me to seek an opportunity to console me.
3. Marian Moonlight in the Dark Night: The third means I learned that helped me learn to marvel at God’s majesty instead of aimlessly wander in the desert of life is turn more to the Mother of God for support and comfort. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, the moon has be a symbol associated with Mary. Oftentimes she is a guide to pilgrims in this earthly existence during a dark night of the soul. Venerable Fulton Sheen spoke this once, “God who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of men.”
Mary reflects or shines the light of Christ during the darkest of nights. During particularly frustrating nights when my children struggle with going to sleep–I ask the Blessed Virgin for assistance in my time of need. Recently, I started to pray a decade of the rosary when rocking my youngest child to bed. Looking to Mary for help is in no way a circumvention around God. I still worship Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, however, the humanity of Mary appeals to me and her maternal mediation always works on our behalf to bring our prayers to God.
I will close with a quote from the J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: During a particularly desolate part of the journey to destroy the ring [which represents sin and corruption] the hobbit-companion to Frodo [the ring-bearer] is Samwise ‘Sam’ Gamgee. He confidently told Frod, “I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. ‘Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.” Do we possess similar resolve when times get tough? If we are married, do we remember our marital commitment to fidelity in the good times and bad? Do we have the courage and empathy to reach out to friends in need? Let us reflect on the promise of Jesus in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
It seemed like I was living in the Arctic Circle this past week. Chilling winds, snow, and ice permeated my city. I despise the cold. I mean really despise it. Perhaps it is because of the constant whipping icy winds that hit my face as I walk to work from the parking lot. Or maybe it is because my wife and I are limited in the options for taking the children during the week. Regardless, I despise the cold!
Meteorologists forecast a -40 wind chill factor in our region. This news may halt our family’s Christmas travel plans. I am worried about the state of our water pipes, I do not want to come home from traveling to find busted pipes due to the insane cold. Winter seems hopeless at times. Yet, somehow amid this apparent gloom the Holy Spirit always finds a way to show me hope in on the horizon. Suddenly, I found myself singing [in my mind] the lyrics to the Christmas Hymn In the Bleak Midwinter. Here are the lyrics for those that wish to sing along with me too:
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow, In the bleak mid-winter Long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him Nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away When He comes to reign: In the bleak mid-winter A stable-place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim Worship night and day, A breastful of milk And a mangerful of hay; Enough for Him, whom angels Fall down before, The ox and ass and camel Which adore.
Angels and archangels May have gathered there, Cherubim and seraphim Thronged the air, But only His mother1 In her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved With a kiss.
What can I give Him, Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb, If I were a wise man I would do my part, Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.
Upon listening to these words, I am provided hope. Honestly, I need hope. Absolute zero scientifically occurs at −273.15° Celsius. This week certainly felt like absolute zero both in temperature and my temperament. I recently took up a new position at work and I am struggle with change. Negative, cold thoughts permeated my mind. Things at home have not necessarily gone better.
I received St. Josemaria Escriva’s spiritual work The Way as a generous lagniappe from an anonymous person from my local church. The Spanish priest seems to have written specifically to me. Josemaria frankly told me, “Don’t be so touchy. The least thing offends you. People have to weigh their words to talk to you even about the most trivial matter. Don’t feel hurt if I tell you that you are…unbearable. Unless you change, you’ll never be of any use” (The Way, 43).
If I heard these words without knowing that a canonized saint penned them, I would be disheartened and probably swiftly move onto the next pages of The Way. Instead, Josemaria’s quote stuck with me [similiar to how a child’s–or even a daring adult– tongue sticks to a frozen flagpole. That is the truth about truth, it remains with you. Like a seed planted, the Spanish priest’s words germinated in my soul this week.
My hope continued to grow after I performed a sacrificial deed for my spouse. My wife mentioned she wanted to take the children out to a local gymnastics facility to relieve their cabin fever. Driving her SUV to run errands, I noticed her air pressure was low on the back driver’s tire. I struggled about whether I wanted to fill up the tire during my shopping run or wait until the temperature rose above zero. I felt a strong debate occur in my mind about the pros and cons. Most of it went back to me being not wanting to endure the sub-zero temperature. Finally, I just admitted that my wife’s day would go better if she did not have to worry about filling up a tire–especially if it deflated more over night! This simple act helped me grow in holiness this winter week.
Interestingly, certain lifeforms actually flourish in frigid climates. The moss Calliergon giganteum actually has the ability to grow in a frozen aquatic habitat–living in the bottom of cold tundra lakes. Wintertime is often viewed as a hindrance to growth, to the vivacity of life. Decreased sunshine and inability to go outside sometimes contributes to seasonal depression. Hopelessness dominated a lot of my December, however, the hope planted by the Holy Spirit through Josemaria’s wisdom and grown through my good deed for my wife helped overcome the despair I felt. Winter may not be good for the human body– at least my body– but oddly enough, maybe my frosty experience with truth was exactly what the Divine Physician prescribed for my soul.