A Long Winter and the Discipline of Hope

How can hope guide us through winter?

Here in Wisconsin, the winter is long. We get our first snow around the first of December, and although some years are notable exceptions, we can have freezing temperatures all the way through March. With eighteen weeks of scraping off our windshields, shoveling our sidewalks, and enduring all-around bitter cold, the winter blues can be tough.

Winters can have a subconscious effect on us. They intensify the pain we may be facing in life because we don’t get much of a psychological lift when we go outside. Instead of green grass and sunshine, we get dark skies and biting wind. And as winter goes on and on and on, it can remind us of our inability to shorten the duration of pain we face in our own lives–pain that can last not just for a season, but for years. Maybe life itself seems to have become permanently cold and dark.

Over the years that I’ve lived in Wisconsin, I’ve found that these long winters can play an important role in my life. They can build the virtue of hope. One writer who creatively demonstrates this role of winter is T. S. Eliot.

Winter in Eliot’s Four Quartets

For the last several years, I’ve been reading and rereading Eliot’s Four Quartets. There’s something I can’t explain about the way this book connects with me. (In fact, I have three copies of the book: one used, one new, and one I wrote out by hand.)

Four Quartets consists of four long poems that meditate on time, memory, eternity, and meaning. The work is mesmerizing in its structure and profound in its message. Many critics see it as the finest work of poetry in the twentieth century.

In one sense, Eliot structured Four Quartets around the four seasons. The last of the four poems, “Little Gidding,” is connected with winter and is the work’s climax. In this poem, Eliot uses winter to show us that it is in  our bleakest moments that we are made ready to receive the gift of hope.

Midwinter Whispers of Spring

The poem begins where we may find ourselves even now: in the midst of a bitterly cold winter day.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

For Eliot, the winter days are harsh. He is surrounded by ice and “windless cold.” The days are short and dark, and everything is frozen. There’s no life. As the poet puts it a few lines later, “There is no earth smell / Or smell of living thing.”

This is where many of us find ourselves in winter, and maybe even in life. It’s dark. It’s cold. We feel down. It’s hard to believe that spring will ever come.

But even in this passage, we can hear the faintest whisper of spring. The sunshine is “[bright], with frost and fire.” Although the ground is covered with ice, it is a “watery mirror” reflecting the light. As a result of this whisper of coming warmth, the poet senses life within—“the heart’s heat.” As this sense of hope intensifies, he continues:

And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.

The poet shows here that even in this bleak season, he is being given hope. And although his meditation brings him back to his winter surroundings, it is transforming, and whispers of spring now symbolize spiritual realities. For example, as he looks to the hedgerow, he notes that in its covering of light snow, it reminds him of the spring—and even more intensely, of the eternal summer that he longs for:

Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.

Overall, the poet uses winter to remind us of our need to empty ourselves so that we can be filled with God. In fact, the poem reflects Eliot’s own pilgrimage from unbelief to faith. Eliot pictures this pilgrimage with the image of a man coming to a chapel to empty himself of self-will and humbly kneel in prayer:

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
. . .
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Through this pilgrimage, Eliot shows us one role of the winters (literal or symbolic) that we go through: they bring us to the point where we are ready to receive hope. They remind us that eventually, the dead whiteness of snow will be replaced by the living whiteness of spring blossoms. They show us that as we empty ourselves of ourselves, we are made ready to receive, and to attain what Eliot calls “a condition of complete simplicity / (costing not less than everything).”

Still Exploring

I am amazed how Eliot uses the concept of winter to point us to hope. He makes us feel the harshness of winter—and of life—but he also reminds us of the reality that spring, a season of new life, will come.

Our souls have their winter seasons. As Eliot reflects on these truths, he shows us what winter can do to us. It can make us stronger. It can point us to our need for renewal. It can help us gain a new will, new meaning, a new resolve. At the end of “Little Gidding,” this resolve shines through:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Although I may be in the midst of my own winter, although my life may not be as easy as I wish it was, I can continue to hope. I can keep exploring, I can keep creating, and I can keep receiving the gift of knowing that one day soon, spring will come.

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