February is the cruelest month…(to me, anyway)
I am a huge fan of poetry, and arguably my favorite 20th century poet is the great T.S. Eliot. This time of year, when the sun gets warmer and the days longer here in the Northern Hemisphere, I remember his opening lines from the Little Gidding:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
In the world of horticulture, something I also immensely enjoy, we find some of the first late winter blooms. Some of these are quite famous, but are little known, especially for the casual gardener. Few people ever take the time to cultivate these plants, because it’s hard to imagine sitting outside in the cold weather to enjoy them!
Examples include the beautiful and medically useful Witch Hazel:
The Galanthus, colloquially called the Snowdrop:
And perhaps more rarely, the Erica Carnea, also called Winter Heath:
(We should not confuse this with common heather/Calluna Vulgaris, although they are related)
Traditional Liturgy, Union with the Natural World
Sometimes I think that in the midst of the gloom of the “Bleak Midwinter”, we forget that, etymologically, the word “Lent”, which most Christians just began, comes from the Old English lencten, of a Germanic source, which means simply “Spring”.
English is unique then, in that we explicitly link in our language a natural event (spring) with a sacred event (a preparatory season before Easter). Lent is thus a season of expectation of life and of rebirth, both spiritually and physically. It is not a mistake that even in the old Latin calendar for Fasts, the Ember Days, traditionally also used this time, between the First and Second Sundays of Lent, to pray for good weather and harvest. This year, they fall on Feb 21, 23, and 24.
I wonder if it’s a coincidence that ever since the Western Church’s calendar decoupled from the agricultural calendar, that we have had a concomitant decline in the modern person’s feeling of living “in tune with nature”. The postmodern world is inherently unnatural, even hostile to nature. You can get fruits and vegetables all out of their regular season, electric light disrupts and alters natural sleep cycles, people manipulate and contort their body’s chemistry in all manner of ways to conform to the incessant demands of a fast paced world.
Return to Nature, Return to Health
It is well known in medicine that are a whole host of conditions which are now epidemic in economically developed societies which have been dubbed “diseases of Westernization”, like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Another condition to arise along with these is increased mental illness.
Is there something we can learn from traditional culture and religion by which we can perhaps turn to a more natural, human way of living?
I am not for a second advocating a return to pre-modern standards of medicine and sanitation, but I do think we could stand as individuals to ask to what extent our lifestyles bring about dis-ease in our world, and society. Would it be far-fetched to wonder whether a bunch of undernourished, stressed out, depressed and sleep-deprived people may be more inclined to negative emotional states, actions of violence, or a deficit in empathy and healthy socialization?
Health both Mental, Physical and Spiritual
Just as the medical community is quickly rediscovering the physical and psychological benefits of moderate fasting, when religious communities have known it for centuries, so too I think we could do a better job of reminding people of the natural rhythms of life as benefiting physical and mental health. In my opinion, respecting the natural order opens us to the transcendent order, and an appreciation of the transcendent order elevates the natural order into something more, something theophantic. ‘Theophantic’ means something revealing of God, and of the true nature of things.
Do we need to shop organic, burn candles or use animal transportation to become closer to nature?
Not really. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I think the questions open up enough doors in themselves.
February and Midwinter may be dull and hard to get through, but they do teach us something important:
Dormant seasons, quiet seasons, seasons of reflection and inactivity, are often the precursors, if not the prerequisites, for true and lasting growth.
God Bless you.