Lean Toward Life
Experiencing the abundance of a spiritual spring is possible only if we first embrace the death of winter
By Winn Collier
My favorite feature of our house is the front balcony providing a panoramic view of Carter’s Mountain, one of the Blue Ridge foothills, which rests adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello estate.
The entire area offers bold foliage, lush vineyards, and an apple orchard covering wide swaths of the mountain. Our little portico provides a perch with just enough space for two green Adirondack chairs and a side table to hold the candles that grace us with flickering light on slow, magical evenings. You don’t need much space to sit with the one you love, ponder the day, and marvel at the glory shining all around you.
For my wife Miska and me, this is our sacred space. During the warm months, our twilight ritual includes two steaming mugs of tea and a meandering conversation as we enjoy the lush, vibrant life carpeting the mountain that watches over us. These are good, good days.
Soon enough, however, winter inevitably comes—and with winter, death. The air turns sharp and frigid. The tomato plants on our back deck wither. Each day the light fades more quickly, as if the sun can’t wait to retreat from the darkness. The leaves which only days earlier painted the mountain a brilliant red, orange, and yellow turn brown and brittle and fall lifeless to the ground. They, too, must have heard Scripture’s words: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Winter reminds us that we can’t hold on to anything forever. Winter reminds us that things die.
When fall comes to a close, we pack up the candles and whisper goodbye to our ritual and the mountain. If we had the power, perhaps we’d hold winter at bay. But of course, we have no such power. English gardener Mirabel Osler once lamented this fact: “To keep the perfect days so that what we have laboured over and nourished, petted and protected can be held at its zenith . . . how badly we would like to hold it just so.”
We cannot control these things, though, and the winter settles. The landscape around us descends into a deep slumber. After several months of hibernation, you can barely recall the blooming colors, the marvelous fragrances, the mountain pregnant with life.
All of us endure winters in our lives—those barren stretches where joy is hard to come by, where grey fills the days. In the winters we must traverse, we discover the unique pain that comes from recognizing that blessing departs too soon, that hopes falter, that relationships and marriages and vocations are not indestructible. When you sit with a mother who has lost her son or walk with a friend whose life has inexplicably crumbled, you recognize the foolishness of ever imagining we possess control. The cold months are unavoidable. Sadly, death is unavoidable. The question is, What will we do with our winters?
Most experts will tell you that winter is the perfect time to prepare for spring. I’m certainly no gardener, but I’ve learned to shut up and listen whenever gardeners talk. Winter, I’m told, is when you trim dead branches. It is when you give attention to the diseased bushes and unruly shrubs. In the winter, you map out your garden for the season to come. This is the season we devote to hope for what will come, when we allow our desire for spring and resurrected life to flourish.
This is risky business, however. Desire is a dangerous thing. Whenever we allow ourselves to hope, we inevitably open ourselves to the very real possibility of being disappointed. In order to play it safe, we too easily make peace with the death we encounter or the brokenness we experience. Some of us grow cynical, cutting joy off before it can ever get started. Some of us lose heart, presuming that God will not act on our behalf. Some of us give ourselves to diminutive and selfish pleasures, assuming we must grab whatever we can rather than trust Him to arrive with something far better. To desire God is to trust God.
The fifth-century theologian Augustine saw prayer as one way of tending to our winters and nurturing our desires. He taught that the labor of prayer serves as an exercise to “enlarge our desires.” Prayer (and the faithful patience that accompanies it) allows us the space to attentively watch for divine action. God’s ways are often miserably slow by our hurried standards, and the repetitive, obedient action of simply directing our hearts toward Him orients us to His reality. Like the persistent widow, we simply keep knocking, keep asking, keep waiting. It may seem as though absolutely nothing is happening, but something is happening in us. Our longing for God to act grows with each prayer.
The process of becoming godly is slow. Few things drag on like winter. However, this long stretch of seemingly futile waiting, frustrating as it may be, is a gift. Our soul requires space in order to be ready to receive the answer, ready to receive God. As Augustine wrote in a letter to his friend Proba, “[God’s] gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.” In winter, He nurtures the soil of our heart so He can lavish us with new life.
God does not simply want to implement transactions with us, serving as some kind of divine vending machine. Rather, He wants to remake our hearts, to kindle fresh life within us. According to the psalmist, God longs to give us the desires of our heart (Ps. 37:4). But if He is to touch us in the place of deep desire, we must experience the pain that accompanies desire. In order to receive life, we must know what it is to die.
Jesus taught us this truth repeatedly. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” He said, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24 niv). Echoing that line of thought, gardener and theologian Vigen Guroian says it this way in his book Inheriting Paradise: Reflections on Gardening: “There is no ecstasy without first agony.”
The beauty, however, is that with God there is indeed ecstasy. Our truest desires are fulfilled in Him. Spring always follows winter. And the more we have felt its sorrows and coldness, its melancholy or frustrations, the more we are prepared to receive a joy that overflows. As Guroian reminds us, “Every experienced Christian gardener knows that there is a spiritual spring which comes just as surely as nature’s spring.”
Each year, I’m reminded that Easter arrives in spring. The cross was God’s necessity, but surely resurrection was His joy. We must endure places of death, but God’s rich delight is to give us life, abundant and vivacious life.
When the days warm and the trees reveal their first green buds, Miska and I know we’ll soon return to our evenings on the balcony. Again, we’ll watch Carter’s Mountain erupt into fresh life. This annual litany serves as a template for our marriage, our vocations, our life with our boys, our spiritual path—for everything.
There are winters where all seems thin or fleeting. But watch and wait...spring is coming. Life is coming. Lean into it.