Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.
Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks,
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat and center.
Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.
And where I walked, the murderous winter blast
Would have this body bowed, these eyeballs streaming,
And though I think this heart's blood froze not fast
It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming.
Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,
And tied our separate forces first together,
Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,
Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.
A Word for Winter
February 24, 2015
Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago, now semi-retired, holds that winter is a season of the heart as much as it is a season of the weather. He cites the poem we have shared this morning as an effort by the poet John Crowe Ransom to tie the two winters together as “two evils, monstrous either one apart, that possessed him.”
We are experiencing the reality of the winter of the climate in its full fury. A friend posted on face-book this morning a picture of the school door where his children attend with the light above the door and the walls of snow towering on either side above the height of the door: “school is open” the caption read.
We know the evil of winter weather too well as February draws to a close. All the records for snow and continued cold weather are broken and we lean toward the solstice that declares that winter is over. Before that when we meet on the 10th of March we will be able to have enjoyed two days of daylight savings time. Ten days later the spring equinox will arrive.
As difficult as the winter is, Marty argues that the winter of the soul is even more difficult. We have learned that cold wears on us and wears us down. We have gotten more use out of our long underwear this year than in any winter in memory but it is the winter of absence that tears at the heart: ”A cry of Absence, Absence in the heart.” His reflections were shaped by the loss of his wife and he turned to the Psalms for comfort and direction.
Our reading of Psalm 90 speaks of transience, of things passing away. This psalm sketches the passage of time from autumn to winter as the movement into the time of absence. The Psalmist writes of God: You turn us into dust. We are like the grass that flourishes and then is burned up. Our life times are to be measured in years spend in toil and trouble. Some of us have reached three score and ten, but all of us have a sense of how fast things progress. Years are soon gone and we fly away. To put it more bluntly, life if short and then you die. And in the cold of winter that seems easy to believe.
The Psalmist does not talk of simple solutions to this complex problem. He does not propose some hereafter where things will be set right. Some may live in perpetual summer never seeing the dark clouds or feeling the wintery wind. That is not our lot, that is not our experience. And it is not simply an issue of weather.
Some of you watched the Oscars on Sunday night and the most poignant moment always comes when they note the passing of great men and women in the entertainment business. There were the names: Robin Williams, Mike Nichols and who could not smile remembering the pleasure each brought to us in the exercise of their craft and now only absence, absence.
The ritual I go through each year is the ritual of updating my address book noting those who have passed away. I remember Dan Langdale who had such influence on our admissions office here at MIT and who led the office at Cal Tech. Dan enjoyed playing softball more than he enjoyed admissions but he enjoyed even more cajoling me with the responsibilities we assumed when the admissions work was done: “We screen ‘em; you Dean ‘em” he would gleefully tell me and I remember his pleasure at one member of the Random Hall community who arrived here in Boston on a train from Dallas where he had just been released from prison.
I remember Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook who, over the course of her time here, taught us all how to better understand the wider world we live in. She had most recently calmly given me a lesson in Russian geography and politics when I had asked about whether we had information on Chechen students. “A cry of Absence, Absence in the heart/ And in the wood the furious winter blowing.”
The antidote to winter and to loss is not to be found in prescriptions although the edge of depression can be dulled with medicine. In the depths of winter we are buoyed by the beauty of the sun rising low on a cold morning. Our kitchen in Rockport was built to take advantage of the earliest light and our pleasure at seeing the light above the oaks is only matched by the warmth of seeing it from Cambridge as it rises above the Prudential. Beauty prompts wonder and wonder gives hope in the depths of the winters of the weather and of the heart.
Martin Marty repeats the old story of a theologian who took his child out one night to see the stars early in the age of satellites and the boy asked “Which ones did we put up there?” We know the answer to that question: very few.
The words of the Psalmist come to mind: “And when I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them. Yet you have made them little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. ”
Wonder lays the groundwork for hope and in the depths of winter, wonder at the beauty that surrounds us even in the dark of winter gives way to hope. Viktor Frankl found hope in the camps where death seemed to reign and so it seem to me that we can find hope in the depths of the winter of both weather and the heart. May it be so.
Lord, you have been our dwellingplaceIn all generations.Before the mountains were broughtforth,or ever you had formed the earthand the world,from everlasting to everlastingyou are God.You turn us back to dust,and say, "turn back, youmortals."For a thousand years in your sightare like yesterday when it is past,or like a watch in the night.You sweep them away; they arelike a dream,like grass that is renewed in themorning;In the morning it flourishes and isrenewed;in the evening it fades and withers.For we are consumed by youranger;by your wrath we areoverwhelmed.You have set our iniquitiesbefore you,our secret sins in the light ofyour countenance.For all our days pass away underyour wrath;our years come to an end likea sigh.The days of our life are seventyyears,or perhaps eighty, if we arestrong;even then their span is only toiland trouble;they are soon gone,and we fly away.…so teach us to count our daysthat we may gain a wise heart…...…O prosper the work of our hands.
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute