In the bleak midwinter
Frosty winds made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.
The seasonal, penetrating cold has returned and looking out on the yard recently I was surprised to see two bluebirds dropping into the winterberry bushes and eating the berries. I see them on my walks and know that they stay the winter, living on the various berries they find and what insects they can glean from the fields but I have not seem them visit my yard in January up till now. Just behind them was a red-bellied woodpecker eating from the suet cake and peanut feeder and I was struck by the contrasts in the two bird species... one larger and one smaller, one rather drab and one vibrant blue, one eating from a man-made food source and one from what the bushes naturally provide. Both were welcomed with what sustenance my yard could offer and both stayed a while and then moved on, leaving only memories behind.
The stanza above is from of one of my favorite Christmas carols, though the images portrayed hit closer to home during these couple of months after Christmas. The earth is hard and frozen right now and it takes all the imagination I can muster to believe that anything will ever spring from it again. And yet even as I look out on the barren landscape I am working on a program about gardening with native plants that includes numerous photographs of gardens ablaze with color. Many of the slides are of my own yard and I am again surprised at what the earth holds beneath its now-unyielding surface. Today snow is in the forecast and to those not botanically minded its coming might seem to forestall the promise of spring's reblooming. To gardeners, however, snow is welcomed as an insulating blanket, protecting the life that lies in waiting until the time is right to emerge once again.
I sometimes think about seasons of grief and anguish in the same way. The times that seem so hopeless and forlorn can hide away in their depths the seeds of new vision and renewed purpose. Though those seeds seem deeply buried, when the time becomes right and conditions become favorable they can stretch out and grow into something unexpectedly glorious if we give them a chance. I was reminded of this contrast during a recent discussion about the relationship between grief and bitterness... an inverse relationship, I should add. I have become convinced that the more genuinely and the more deeply we allow ourselves to grieve our losses and our pain, the more likely we are to come through them with hearts still soft and spirits free from bitterness. It is into such hearts that peace returns and wholeness is restored. If we allow Him, God will come to us in our grief as we admit that we have no control over events or hurts that so affect our lives. Bitterness, on the other hand, pushes God away. It is our vain attempt to deny how seriously we have been wounded and in its determination to protect us from being in such a fearful position ever again, it poisons and imprisons us.
The choice of how we respond to pain is ours alone to make. And in the choosing, unbeknownst to us, we turn towards life in its fullness or a slow erosion of the spirit. Grieving causes us to be confronted with just how vulnerable we really are in this world and yet, in a mysterious juxtaposition, it can bring the freedom to become who we have been created to be. Grieving, and its companion Forgiveness, are the only remedy to a life of bitterness and hardness of heart. Together they create the fertile soil that nourishes our soul and the beauty that lies within us, waiting to be reborn. May God, in His mercy, give us the courage to approach our pain with honesty and humility and thereby to realize new life.