By Vir Christi
The Old Challenge of Winter
One of the wintertime challenges Americans frequently talk about is the “weight challenge.” With so many winter holidays that encourage overeating, people struggle to maintain a healthy diet and a good exercise regimen. While people certainly pay attention to the physical challenges that winter presents, less talked about are the spiritual challenges.
We humans are heavily influenced by our surroundings. That’s why we’re always encouraged to keep good company and put ourselves in places where we can build good habits. In the winter, especially once the holidays have passed, a sense of dreariness can overcome us. People are tired of the cold and the snow. They’re ready for flowers, birds, and sunshine.
This sense of dreariness frequently can find its way into our spiritual lives…and not only in the season of winter. Battling through spiritual winters often feels like a chore. In some cases, it can feel downright counterproductive. We eagerly look forward to spiritual springtimes, when we see fruit from our prayer lives and relationships most clearly bearing out. We like it when praying becomes easier, less distracted, and more filled with joy. In short, winter—both biologically and spiritually—seems like a monumental waste of time.
The New Challenge of Winter
While it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating winters as humdrum and unimportant, winter is actually the most important season for both the Earth and our spiritual lives. Just because we don’t see anything going on above the ground doesn’t mean nothing is going on, period. Winter is a busy season for the planet, even if it doesn’t seem evident to us.
Under the ground, seeds are taking root and preparing to burst up through the soil. Insect colonies are regrouping. Animals are hibernating, gathering their strength in anticipation of a long year of hunting for food and making nests for their young. During the winter, the Earth is refreshed, so that spring truly can feel like a new beginning.
Our spiritual winters have to be approached in the same way. The times of dryness and struggle may seem to us like they’re not accomplishing anything on the surface, but the real work of the spiritual life was never on the surface to begin with. Every time you make a little sacrifice for the greater good, you’re building virtue. The conversation you tolerated with that annoying coworker, who never seems to talk to anyone but you, that’s building virtue. Things like that are struggles! They make us grit our teeth and wonder when it will ever end. No matter how you’re feeling internally, every external work you do (provided your goal is to do the right thing) assists that busy spiritual activity taking place under the surface.
“But I don’t feel like I’m getting anything out of prayer,” you might say. Nevertheless, those periods where you feel the most stagnant and dry are when you’re laying a firm foundation for grace to build upon! When you try to carry out good activities in the spiritual life although you don’t feel up to doing them, you’re preparing yourself for even greater graces when you do feel something. If you handle your spiritual winters properly, you’ll appreciate your spiritual springtimes all the more because you remember the desolations. You won’t take these springtimes for granted, and you’ll allow God’s grace to flourish in those times.
So How Do I Live out Winter Anew?
Funny you should ask that, because Lent is right around the corner. Lent is an annual time where we quite literally enter into a spiritual winter (you’ll hear it called a “spiritual desert,” but it’s the same principle). The sacrifices you make for Lent, the penances you do…all of it sometimes feels repetitive and without any real benefit. But the harder you work in cultivating those virtues and good works during the season of Lent, the more you come to appreciate the joys associated with the season of Easter. The Church puts the season of Lent in front of Easter partly so we can know that the joy of eternal life (Easter) is not attained without the hard work of self-denial and the Cross first (Lent). So you can use Lent as an exercise for how to handle the spiritual winters.
It’s important to build good habits of self-denial. During times when you feel “off” in your spiritual life, that’s when you’re more inclined to sin and indulge in bad habits. Self-denial reminds you of the ultimate goal. It also sends a message to Jesus that says, “Hey, life is really hard for me right now. However, I love you so much that I’m willing to give up this thing I like on top of what I’m already struggling with.”
Pick a little thing each day to deny yourself. Maybe if you like cream and sugar in your coffee, one day you only drink it black. Then the next day, you give yourself a lukewarm shower as opposed to a hot shower. You don’t have to pick crushing penances and spiritual practices during Lent and spiritual dryness. In fact, you’ll be more likely to be resentful of the practices and less likely to do them. Pick little things to take away, enough to sting but not so much that you hate mortification and fall into bad discipline.
The most important thing during spiritual winters is to pray without ceasing. Some days that’ll be an hour in Adoration; other days, getting out an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be will feel like a chore. That’s okay! God knows when you don’t feel like praying, and the fact that you made the effort to talk to Him even when you didn’t want to is important.
The worst thing the Earth could do in winter is absolutely nothing, because then we wouldn’t have our gorgeous springs. Likewise, the worst thing you can do in your spiritual winters is nothing. You are a co-heir with the Lion of Judah: stand tall!
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.