“If we look to the bottom of the raging dissatisfaction that characterizes so many people today, chances are it all goes back to a dislike of self that has a way of poisoning everything else one perceives.”
John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event
The way we treat ourselves is the way we will treat others. The counsel of Jesus to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” both begin with a love for the self as a unique and wonderful creation of God. We often miss the fact that we have to respect ourselves before we can respect others. In order to love our neighbors, following Jesus’ advice, we first have to drop the harsh and often hostile manner with which we treat ourselves.
The recognition that you will only be able to love your neighbor as you learn to love yourself is an important insight into the words of Jesus. The pattern you develop in dealing with the person you deal with most often, — yourself — becomes the pattern by which you will begin to relate to everyone else. If you don’t like yourself and are critical of yourself at every juncture, you begin to see others only in a critical way.
The hostile, critical, dissatisfied way we treat others becomes the way we perceive and begin to act toward others. One escape is to try to find heroes whom we imagine are not like us. They are super-humans without our flaws and imperfections. “If only we could be like so and so,” we say. And so, in our raging dissatisfaction with ourselves we try to become someone else, rather than learning to love the person we are.
The parables of Jesus are wonderfully good news for us if we could truly believe that what Jesus says is true. His parables tell of a God who accepts all of us as we are, without condition, in spite of who we are and where we have been. The doors to God’s acceptance are flung wide open. All are invited to enter, the poor, the marginalized, the unworthy—even you. Entrance is free and welcome to all who will enter. The parables tell of a God who is even willing to come out and search for the lost, the wayward, and the lonely. The doors to God’s acceptance of whom we are right now, in spite of our flaws, are open to all.
Why do so few go in through these doors? Is it because, in our critical way of dealing with ourselves, we know ourselves to be unworthy, undeserving of that kind of love—the love we really need?
What would happen if you believed these stories just for a minute and, foolish as it might seem, you went in? You might find that knowing you are loved and accepted will allow you to be a little easier on yourself. At the same time, you may become less critical of others and more willing to love them as you love yourself.
For the past few weeks, I have been engrossed in the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. I was attracted to the book by the title and ordered it right away. Not every title has that kind of immediate appeal.
I have always loved the winter season, but I have had difficulty articulating exactly why to folks who don’t like the cold. There is so much more to winter than cold, ice, and snow. Besides the appeal of winter for me, the words “rest,” “retreat”, and “difficult times” in the title of the book all spoke to me and my (or should I say our?) current situation.
Working from home has become the norm for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. That has been particularly difficult in households where there are young children attending virtual school while the adults try to continue with their own work. The challenges of contemporary life made the subtitle of the book—The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times — all the more appealing to me. May’s book was written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. Life is certainly different now from what it was when the book was written. Nevertheless, the difficulty of adjusting to life amidst a pandemic makes her reflections on adversity all the more pertinent now.
The book is an extended secular meditation on the fallow periods in life in which we can retreat, rest, and recover. May’s reflections are part memoir and part elegantly written investigation of the metaphorical concepts of “winter” and “wintering” that she invents to describe our way of dealing with our fears and anxieties. The book is deeply autobiographical. At the same time, it is written in such a way as to leave space for its readers to identify and reflect on their own experiences of “wintering.” That is the great strength of this book.
Reflecting on the falling leaves in October, May writes: “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing bare bones. Given time they grow again.”
“Wintering,” May explains, “is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you are cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. …Wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful….We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be an eternal summer. ” Life is not like that.
Reflecting on an illness that struck her, May states bluntly that “winter blanked me, blasted me open. In all that whiteness I saw the chance to make myself new again.”
The book,she tells us, is about “learning to recognize the process” of wintering, “engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it.” We might never choose to winter, but, but once we understand our experiences in light of that concept, she maintains, we are more likely to be in the place in which we can choose how we do it.
In November and December, I experienced a wintering of my own. Who knew that a slight twist of my spine unloading the car would lead to two successive surgeries on my back in the same place where I already had a previous surgery? It seemed like nothing at the time, so much so that when my back began to hurt the following day, it took me three days to remember that I had twisted it earlier that week.
This event began two months of excruciating pain down my right leg all the way to my toes. The cause turned out to be a herniated disc in much the same place that I had had back surgery three years ago. This led to an additional surgery. My surgery went well and a couple of weeks out things looked promising. But that was not to be. Three weeks after surgery, I found myself back in the hospital for an additional week with an infection that required opening up one of the surgical sites and cleaning it out. Because no visitors were allowed, I spent the week alone in my room. Of course, it was a hospital, so I was never really alone, but due to the state of the COVID-19 pandemic I was allowed no visitors. My hospital stay was followed by three weeks of IV antibiotics and then a couple more weeks of oral antibiotics.
Throughout this ordeal, I took things as they came, calmly and in stride, never finding myself to be upset about much of anything. I can’t say that it’s always been that way when I have faced adversities like this in the past. This time, however, I seemed to have the resources necessary to cope with my circumstances, when at other times in the past I did not. Working from home, a loving family, a supportive church community, not going out as much as I had before the pandemic, time to rest, and taking time to read at night before going to sleep, had given me resources I never knew I had until they were needed.
Rather than fleeing from the difficult times in our lives, May maintains, we need to learn to embrace them —“we must learn to invite the winter in”— so that we can learn from them and grow. She writes: “Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season when the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”
After recovering from her own illness, which May interpreted in a metaphorical way as form of wintering, she writes, “ Winter is asking me to be more careful with my energies, and to rest a while until spring.” That is advice I needed to hear. And it is advice, that you might want to take to heart.
“At its base,” May concludes, the book “ is about noticing what’s going on and living it. That’s what the natural world does: it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes…and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living…. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals, winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans.”
We cannot move on from our metaphorical winter, without embracing it first. When we invite the winter in, we are not necessarily overtaken by it. Rather, we enter it so that one day spring will arrive for us, with all its possibilities for new life and growth.
 Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (London: Penguin/Random House, 2020). The book was highlighted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize, sponsored by the National Trust in England, that celebrates the best in English Nature Writing.
This meditation is taken in part from the sermon I preached at the Ordination of Daniel Paul Spors to the Priesthood on January 18, 2017
The hymn, “Come labor on” (The Hymnal 1982, #541) begins with a call to action:
“Come labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, ‘Go work today.’”
It is a call to action—a call to follow Jesus—to attend to the harvest to which Jesus, the Son of Man calls each and every person who desires to follow him. My favorite verse, however, is the third:
“Come labor on. Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: by feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will”.
The verse tells of how God takes our feeble efforts and uses them for God’s glory and God’s purposes. How does God do that? We will never know, but thanks be to God, God does it.
Working as a priest in parish ministry has many challenges. One thing is eminently true. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. You can try to “be all things to all people” as St. Paul once wrote, but you will never please everyone. All you can do is to strive to be faithful to God.
And the most wonderful thing about our respective ministries— and you have one whether you are ordained or a layperson —is that God will work in and through you even when you are sure that you have failed—that no one has heard you—that you have not said enough—or done enough. God, mysteriously, will have a way of creating something good out of even the smallest and imperfect fragments of your work. It is a mystery—a wonderful mystery—how God speaks, works, and acts through us, despite ourselves. That is the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit!
It’s true with most jobs that people will rarely tell you that you are doing a good job, but quick to tell you when you are doing something wrong. As a priest, it is no different. We are rarely told that what we have done, or said, or not said made any difference in the lives of those to whom we minister. That is in part because we human beings—all of us— rarely recognize it at the time we are being helped. That recognition only comes later. For that reason, we clergy often do and do, never knowing if what we do makes any difference at all in the lives of those to whom we minister. In ministry, there are times when we will not know if we are doing a good enough job or not. We can only trust that if we are doing all in your power to be faithful to God, that God will use us, even if, despite our very best efforts, we feel that we have failed. All we can do is to be faithful to our call to the priesthood because God will always be faithful to us.
The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, ordained to the priesthood in the church of Wales in 1936, wrote a poem entitled “The Country Clergy” that speaks to the situation I have described in words that transcend my meager words on this topic.
I see them working in old rectories By the sun’s light, by candlelight, Venerable men, their black cloth A little dusty, a little green With holy mildew. And yet their skulls, Ripening over so many prayers, Toppled into the same grave With oafs and yokels. They left no books, Memorial to their lonely thought In grey parishes; rather they wrote On men’s hearts and in the minds Of young children sublime words Too soon forgotten. God in his time Or out of time will correct this.
In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says that he does not need a written letter of recommendation to attest to the work of his ministry, because the people to whom he ministered in Corinth, imperfect as they are, in fact, serve as his letter of recommendation. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
Other people may not appreciate what you are doing when you do it, or even remember what you have done, but if you put your trust in God, and not in what people think of you, God in God’s time works all things for good. You will “write” on the hearts and minds of men and women, and young children. God takes whatever we have to give and makes the most of it. God is always faithful.
 “The Country Clergy” in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990. (London: Orion Books, 1993), 82.
I long have been deeply moved by the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers who began living in the deserts of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries of the church. The most famous of them was St. Anthony of Egypt (251?-356 AD). His biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired thousands of young men and women to flee the cities of the Byzantine world for the solitude of the desert. These spiritual warriors, as they saw themselves, had left everything for the sake of Jesus Christ. Now they had arrived in the desert to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many were unprepared for this task and as a result sought out the advice of spiritual elders. This advice was soon collected and widely distributed in the ancient Christian world.
The teachings of the elders were not systematic but rather were a collection of answers to questions from those who came to them for spiritual advice and counsel. A good many of the requests directed to the elders began with these simple words, “Speak to me a word that I may live.” The answers the seekers received most often were not what they expected. Often, they sent the seeker away to re-engage with the very question he or she had hoped the elder would solve.
One elder apparently was asked why it was so difficult to grow in the life of service and prayer to God. He answered: “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.” The last sentence is telling. The young seeker thought that his radical renunciation of the world should be enough to catapult him to virtue. The only way, however, that we gain virtue is by repeated effort.
Virtue in the ancient world was understood to be something gained by practice. We learn to love as we love, to be a giving person as we give, to be forgiving as we forgive and so forth. None of these virtues can be purchased off the shelf or given to us by God or anyone else. To learn to do these things we have to do them. And we most likely will not learn how to do them unless we fail over and over again. “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.”
It takes discipline and effort to grow and mature. Lent is the season the church sets aside for particular devotion and dedication, not to burden us with one more thing to do, but as a time in which we can learn more about ourselves and our limits. May you have a blessed and holy Lent.
This Lenten booklet (link below) provides resources to assist you in your daily Lenten devotions and readings. May you be drawn closer to our Savior Jesus Christ in this Lenten season.