This was a piece I wrote for the Renovare’ Book Club responding to Julian of Norwich’s writings in Showings. I think it is appropriate as we prepare to enter Holy Week this upcoming Sunday.
It has been a long winter in Ohio and many other places throughout the country. The frozen attitudes and icy stares that greet me most everywhere I go need a good spring thaw. So, too, our spirits.
This winter, more than others in recent memory, has made me cling to a phrase a former colleague often repeated, “Grace grows best in the winter.”
Intellectually, I understood that winter was metaphor for those times in life when hope and energy lie dormant, but deep under the surface of life something is happening, something that will begin to grow later. Experientially, however, this saying seemed like a mere platitude until my winter came (a few years ago) and my spirit deadened, the days turned bleak and life-less, and my future appeared as dismal as a cold winter day.
The thing about suffering and dormancy in humans is that, in the middle of it, we wonder if it will ever end, we fear we will never bloom again. But, when I thought I could endure no more, spring aroused from its slumber and provided the nourishment for new growth. In retrospect, I discovered the wisdom of this phrase, “Grace grows best in the winter.”
Though I can say I learned much from my spiritual winter, I would not have chosen it and hope it doesn’t happen again with that same fierce intensity. That’s why I was so intrigued or maybe even confused by Julian’s desire for a bodily sickness as one of her three graces. Suffering will happen anyway. We will face barren seasons, bitter storms, long-enduring harsh spiritual weather systems. Why choose it?
In her own words, “ I wished that his pains might be my pains, with compassion which would lead to longing for God” (p. 129). For Julian, entering into the suffering of God seems to be the vehicle which carries her deeper into the heart of God. There, the scaffolding of life which she (and by extension, all of us) uses to prop up her life falls away and she is immersed into a presence and a love that will not let her go.
Her suffering connects with Jesus’ suffering. His pain becomes her pain. His compassion for the world bleeds over into her renewed compassion for the world. And not just in this life, but as a prelude to life to come. Therefore, “I wanted to go on living to love God better and longer, and living so, obtain grace to know and love God more as he is in the bliss of heaven” (p. 127).
In recent times, theologian Richard Rohr picks up a similar theme as it relates to the ongoing process of growth and maturity in Christ. He writes about “necessary suffering,” the suffering that shakes us loose from the pre-occupation with self and drives us deeper into the heart of God and, thus, into deeper solidarity with all that God loves—the whole creation and all of humanity.
Whether chosen or encountered in the normal rhythms of life, suffering, for both Julian of Norwich and Richard Rohr, pierces the final barrier between God and us and opens the way for unity with God, in God’s all-embracing love, and solidarity with all who walk similar paths. Suffering is not to be avoided or ultimately seen as outside of our relationship with God. It can become a pathway to new insight and new hope.
From Julian, “And these words: You will not be overcome, were said very insistently and strongly, for certainty and strength against every tribulation which may come. He did not say; you will not be assailed, you will not be belaboured, you will not be disquieted, but he said: You will not be overcome” (p. 165).
Grace grows best in the winter.
It’s Monday. What have you learned about yourself during long, harsh winters? Remember, spring does eventually arrive, for the natural world and for you. Peace. Kai