In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Christmas has passed, but I can’t get these lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem out of my mind. The poem, which celebrates the spiritual renewal symbolized by the birth of Jesus in the middle of winter, was put to music by modern composer Gutav Holst early in the last century and is now a well-known Christmas carol that was featured on many of the radio programs I listened to during the holiday season.
I don’t have to look much beyond my own driveway, a devastation of frozen ice and snow, to know why Rossetti’s lines have stayed with me. Whatever religious tradition we follow, this time of year can give fresh meaning to the word anti-climax and leave us impatient for the appearance of the first crocus.
Bears hole up in these winter months, hibernate, tune out until more hospitable days arrive. I sometimes feel I would like to follow their example and hide out until the better weather comes. And if I, as an adult, struggle with the bleak midwinter, how can a child be expected to respond?
The bleak midwinter months test our patience, but for our children, as for ourselves, the season offers opportunities for growth. Nature may be sleeping, but the human soul is not. The dynamic process of spiritual growth is unstoppable. And it is what we, in the Baha’i Faith, call tests and difficulties whether in the form of a bleak midwinter landscape, a huge pile of homework, or an unkind classmate — that enable us to cultivate the detachment we need to see the events of our lives from a spiritual perspective.
Our children need to learn how to face hardship in order to appreciate ease, to embrace sorrow in order to savor happiness, to face loss in order to learn how to hold close what they love. As a parent, I brace myself to teach the cold lessons of this bleak season to my daughter so she can become stronger in facing the tests and difficulties that will foster her growth.
I remind myself that to model for my daughter attitudes of fortitude, patience, and what Abdu’l-Bahá* called radiant acquiescence in facing the bleakness of an inner landscape populated by a difficult colleague or a neglectful friend is to give her the one of the greatest gifts I, as her parent, can offer: spiritual survival skills.
And my daughter will not be the first to venture across this bleak midwinter landscape. It has been traversed by many who have gone before her, including the prophets of God, who in facing their own tests forged a renewed intimacy with the Creator by whom each of them was chosen to fulfill His difficult mission on earth.
In was in the bleak midwinter January 12th, 1853 that Baháʼu’lláh, the Prophet who founded the Baha’i Faith, was banished from his homeland, Persia, and forced to cross the inhospitable snow-covered mountains of western Iran, arriving at last, in spring, in a pleasant valley waving with orange trees, near the Iraqi border town of Khanaqin.
As a Baha’i parent, I plan to take the opportunity offered by this snow-laden season to blaze a fresh trail for my daughter, one that leads away from the easy plains of our fast-food, instant gratification culture and towards the high mountains. The peaks may be difficult to scale, but will be joyfully won.
As I look out the window at my frozen driveway, I remind myself to embrace the bleak midwinter with enthusiasm, for in so doing, I teach my daughter to see the pattern in spiritual life. After winter, comes spring. After hardship, comes ease. With
tests and difficulties, comes spiritual growth.
Tests are benefits from God, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting.The plant most pruned by the gardeners is the one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit. (Abdul-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 50-51)
*ʻAbdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921) was the son of Baháʼu’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith.