In the preface to their collection of essays in the book Winter, a Spiritual Biography of the Season, the editors write, “Winter is the seat of what will come, the freeze that reminds us of the thaw, the hope pensively waiting, the moment pausing, the rhythm at its nadir but poised to begin its upward swing.”
We have endured more than our share of despair these past few weeks. I confess that I feel like the people in exile. I look at our frozen bones and wonder with Ezekiel, can these bones live?
Ezekiel prophesied during a tumultuous time in Israel’s history, the late 6th century when the nation was about to fall and the people would be sent into exile. In 598, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and deported a number of leading citizens, including Ezekiel. Five years later, Ezekiel hears a call to spread more bad news to the people of Judah and the exiles.
But that’s not all. On the eve of the destruction of the Temple, his wife dies and he’s ordered by God not to weep for her. Sounds like a long bleak winter. In the first half of the book Ezekiel prophesies doom and destruction for the Hebrew people. The second half holds words of hope and restoration. It’s so much easier to listen to the words of hope and resurrection. We could use such a word right around now. But rushing there seems a bit more than we can handle. It doesn’t ring true. We need Lent before we can handle Easter.
When we’re frozen to the bone, it’s all we can do to just get up and get out of bed in the morning. I know, we’ve been there, done that. When we’re frozen to the bone in our souls, then even those outdoor enthusiasts who claim the spiritual reclamation that comes from a good ice fishing expedition, seem simply crazy. Or those athletic types who revel in snowshoeing or skiing or snowmobiling or ice skating. Those are things to do in 25 degree weather, not 15 below!
And yet, in spite of such dismal warnings, many of us seek out those places of comfort, of hope, of music and beauty. We bundle up and we come to church. We do it to remind us that there is another reality out there. There is an alternative to perpetual exile and negativity. We come here to connect with the larger story. The one of resurrection and of hope. I was so proud of our church yesterday as we gathered for Mark’s funeral. In the bleakest of times, this place was filled with warmth, good food and gracious hospitality. What a fine compliment to the stories and memories shared in the service itself.
The story of scripture is that even though we are in a valley filled with dry bones, God has not left us comfortless. There’s a story out there waiting to be woven into our very bones. We may not be ready to embrace it fully. But we need to remember it is out there. Despair and death are not the final word. Cold and misery will bring forth budding flowers and boiling maple sap in less than two months. Can we hang on? The only thing that helps when we’re frozen to the bone is the memory of something better. It will get better, as sure as winter turns to spring, it will get better. In the mean time, we hunker down. We drink warm beverages. We bundle up. We snuggle up in prayer shawls. We surround ourselves with community. And we tell stories—stories that will remind us of something better. That’s why we come to church in the real bleak mid-winter.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, talks about the importance of stories for our souls. She feels stories need to be heard for the auditory nerve is divided into three pathways: one pathway hears mundane conversations, one apprehends learning and art, and the third exists so the soul itself can hear guidance and gain knowledge while here on Earth. She begins her book with the following story:
There is an old woman who lives in a hidden place that everyone knows but few have ever seen. As in the fairy tales of Eastern Europe, she seems to wait for lost or wandering people and seekers to come to her place.
She is circumspect, often hairy, always fat, and especially wishes to evade most company. She is both a crower and a cackler, generally having more animal sounds than human ones.
They say she lives among the rotten granite slopes in Tarahumara Indian territory. They say she is buried outside Phoenix near a well. She is said to have been seen traveling south to Monte Alban in a burnt-out car with the back window shot out. She is said to stand by the highway near El Paso, or ride shotgun with truckers to Morelia, Mexico, or that she has been sighted walking to market above Oaxaca with strangely formed boughs of firewood on her back. She is called by many names: La Huesera, Bone Woman; La Trapera, The Gatherer; and La Loba, Wolf Woman.
The sole work of La Loba is the collecting of bones. She is known to collect and preserve especially that which is in danger of being lost to the world. Her cave is filled with the bones of all manner of desert creatures: the deer, the rattlesnake, the crow. But her specialty is said to be wolves.
She creeps and crawls and sifts through the montanas, mountains, and arroyos, dry river beds, looking for wolf bones, and when she has assembled an entire skeleton, when the last bone is in place and the beautiful white sculpture of the creature is laid out before her, she sits by the fire and thinks about what song she will sing.
And when she is sure, she stands over the criatura, raises her arms over it, and sings out. That is when the rib bones and leg bones of the wolf begin to flesh out and the creature becomes furred. La Loba sings some more, and more of the creature comes into being; its tail curls upward, shaggy and strong.
And La Loba sings more and the wolf creature begins to breathe.
And still La Loba sings so deeply that the floor of the desert shakes, and as she sings, the wolf opens its eyes, leaps up, and runs away down the canyon.
Somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running, or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.
So remember, if you wander the desert, and it is near sundown, and you are perhaps a little bit lost, and certainly tired, that you are lucky, for La Loba may take a liking to you and show you something - something of the Soul.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With The Wolves. pp.23-24.
Ezekiel wonders, can these bones live? Can God breathe life into us in the valley of our despair.
The answer is a resounding yes. God’s spirit is named Ruah. It means breath. It means wind. It means life-force. Ruah is here even in the bitter wind. When we are frozen to the bone, we have that time to be reflective, to reconsider our commitments. We take the down time and we use it well. We use it to refocus on our priorities. I don’t know about you, but every time a crisis happens or especially when we are faced with mortality, we find ourselves looking at what is most important to us. What part of us is frozen and can’t move? What part of us demands a little resurrection?
Why not use this time of frozen cocooning to make our list of priorities. Why not reevaluate the way we spend our time and energy. Maybe we need to breathe a little bit of life-giving Ruah into those dormant places.
The point is, don’t let the valley of dry bones be the place where we stay all the time. Prophecy to the bones says God to Ezekiel. And God will bring ruah. Sing to the bones, for music brings life. That must be why we sing in church.
But don’t let the rattle of bones be the only sound. Don’t let winter’s bitter bite be the only memory. Don’t let death and despair be the last word. Ruah is here, waiting in the wings, waiting to sing us home. Waiting to show us an even better way. Waiting to help us put flesh on those dry bones. And always there to point us toward the great resurrected place of hope.
Thanks be to God.