THE KAIROS DAYS OF WINTER
The promise of a polar vortex looms on the horizon as does the month of February on the calendar. After months of Covid isolation, with the worst days of the pandemic promised in the coming weeks, the next two months will certainly test our physical and spiritual resolve. It is always darkest just before dawn. Yet this is a liminal time that beckons with spiritual possibility. We best reframe our appreciation of these remaining days of winter.
There are two books of God’s self-revelation: creation and scripture. The modern Western church bifurcates the two and looses much of our awareness of God’s presence. Academically, we discuss this problem as the strained relationship of science and faith. But this has not always been the case. For most of history, those societies that lived closest to the land were always consciously aware of the spiritual dimensions of nature. This is still true among Africa, Native Americans, Australian aboriginal, and the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Moderns have turned on the neon lights and lost our connection to the stars. As a consequence our spirituality has suffered.
There are entire courses taught in seminary about biblical hermeneutics—how to best interpret sacred texts. There are no courses taught on creational hermeneutics—how best to understand nature as a portal to the divine. It maybe that the scientific method is an inadequate approach to reality with its latent reductionistic tendencies. Are there not deeper spiritual riches to be found in the study and reflection on nature? These riches are often explored by modern proponents of depth ecology such as David Abram and John Muir. Muir wrote, “I only went out for a walk, and finally conclude to stay our till sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.” Muir is one of the great environmentalist of all time. His spiritual connection to nature was heavily influenced by the Bible—it was for him a portal to a deeper reality. One scholar wrote of Muir, “John saw God’s work, love and mercy in creation. His church was the mountain, his worship was curiosity and reverence, and his theology was listening to God’s voice in the symphony of the forest.”
Ancient mystics also found that nature was a portal to the spiritual. Here one can—with an open mind and enchanted imagination—become aware of an added dimension to reality. One does not have to be limited to flatland when there is simultaneously a higher view of things. In 1884, English clergyman Edwin A. Abbott published a work of science and mathematical fantasy titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. While it is true that Abbott’s book is in part a critique of Victorian social hierarchy, his thought experiment is suggestive of the implications of a larger metaphysical world. The protagonist of this story lives in a two-dimensional reality, but is encountered by a stranger from “spaceland,” a three-dimensional reality. Spaceland is not a different kind of reality, but a fuller experience of the same. And encounters between the two dimensions retain a mysterious opaqueness. They point without telling; they call without commanding. There is a necessary hermeneutic to nature.
The Celts were people of the land and great lovers of creation. Their love of nature was not ecological, but spiritual. Nature was considered the normal portal to a wider transcendent reality. Tracy Balzer writes, “The earliest pagan Celts were profoundly aware of the spiritual world. Even before they came to know the one true God of the universe, they had an understanding of the unseen world, and perceived the reality of the spiritual world at every turn.” In this pagan Druid, pantheistic spirituality, they believed there were places in nature where the line between the spirit world and the physical world were “tissue-paper thin.” These revered liminal or threshold sacred sites became known as “thin places.” There were also “thin times,” kairos moments of transcendent meaning when time takes on an added significance. Saint Patrick, the father of Celtic spirituality, would later affirm that nature is a means to God, but not God. Their pagan sensibility is not wrong as much as incomplete. Nature is a window that points beyond itself, a sign not a destination. The point is not the window, but what the window reveals beyond. Nature is not the place, but the portal.
The late Celtic poet and philosopher John O’Donohue warned, “One of the tragedies of modern culture is that we have lost touch with these primal thresholds of nature. The urbanization of modern life has succeeded in exiling us from this fecund kinship with our mother earth. Fashioned from the earth, we are souls in clay form. We need to remain in rhythm with our inner clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world.” We no longer know how to listen for the spiritual lessons of nature. We no longer are aware of the story our bodies are designed to tell. This is to our profound loss as we cut ourselves off from the most basic path to spiritual pilgrimage on which Patrick, Muir, and countless others have trod before us.
Many of Jesus’s parables come from discussions about nature. Parables are not just pretty stories that are easy to remember; rather, they help us understand something difficult by making a comparison to something concrete with which we are familiar. If the spiritual reality of the kingdom of heaven is a present immediate existing invisible spiritual reality operating in parallel with everyday existence, then one would expect for there to be parallels and points of connection between these dimensions of reality. Like WIFI, there is an added spiritual resource and reality available to all, if one is willing to enter into this relational connection that is animated by love. Consider these spiritual analogies from nature.
“Spiritual” is not something we ought to be. Rather it is who we are, regardless of what we think about it. In nature everything that is living derives its life from an environment that is other-than and larger-than itself. Philosopher Dallas Willard writes, “Every kind of life, from cabbage to the water buffalo, lives from a certain world that is suited to it. It is called to that world by what it is. There alone is where its well-being lies. Cut off from its special world it languishes and eventually dies.... We ought to be spiritual in every aspect of our lives because our world is the spiritual one…. As we increasingly integrate our life into the spiritual world of God, our life increasingly takes on the substance of the eternal.” We are fundamentally not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical one. There is a larger personal spiritual world of love from which the resources for life are derived. There is a unique world of otherness which enables us to thrive. This is a lesson of nature.
There is a sacred meaning to God’s creation. God communicates not only in words, but through what he has made. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do) but also by things themselves. So whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science [sacred science] has the property that the things signified by the words [of Scripture] have themselves a signification. Therefore that first signification, whereby words signify things, belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it.” Aquinas suggests that behind the literal meaning of a thing in words is also a deeper spiritual meaning. Behind Thomas's hermeneutic is a metaphysics—a sacramental view of nature. Created things can point to a deeper spiritual reality.
Humans naturally long for the shoreline. It’s where we go on vacation. Property values are always higher here. There is a sacramental reason for this longing, for here the sacred masculine and feminine meet. Male and female are biological genders. Masculine and feminine, or yang and yin, are universal, cosmic principles, extending to all reality, including spirit. Sexuality is rooted in cosmology—the very nature of reality. Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes,
"All pre-modern civilizations knew this. English is almost the only language that does not have masculine and feminine nouns. So it is easy for us who speak English to believe that the ancients merely projected their own biological gender out onto nature in calling heaven masculine and earth feminine, day masculine and night feminine, sun masculine and moon feminine, land masculine and sea feminine. In the Hindu marriage ceremony the bridegroom says to the bride, 'I am heaven, you are earth.' The bride replies, 'I am earth, you are heaven.' Not only is cosmic sexuality universal; its patterns are suspiciously consistent. Most cultures saw the sun, day, land, light, and sky as male; moon, night, sea, darkness, and earth as female. Is it not incredibly provincial and culturally arrogant for us to assume, without a shred of proof, that this universal and fairly consistent human instinct is mere projection, myth, fantasy, and illusion rather than insight into a cosmic principle that is really there?"
If one assumes as all ancient cultures did, that nature has a sacramental or deeper spiritual meaning, then it is not surprising to find that Celtic “thin places” are often found at these points of cosmic connection—wells, dawn, the seashore, sexual intercourse, death, the Eucharist, Easter, and the changing of the seasons.
This, in part, explains the spiritual mysticism of surfing, for it is a dance in the midst of a power larger than oneself across the threshold of the sacred feminine and masculine. Surfing is an analogy of the spiritual journey. It is a dance at the dawn of a glorious sunrise. It is the time stopping, breath slowing pause at sunset on the Pacific Ocean. It is to bath in liminality. At these times, we are called into a larger reality, into the poetic real of the next dimension. Philosopher Peter Kreeft, an avid surfer, writes, "The sea herself is the most poetic thing on earth (except perhaps a woman's face), and a breaking wave is the most poetic thing on the sea, and riding it is the most poetic thing you can do with it. Therefore surfing is the most poetic thing you can do on earth."
Music can create the same response. Music is vibrations arranged in time in order to express meaning and beauty, which connects with the human imagination and points us to its transcendent origin. Because music is physical in nature, one’s view of music is necessarily a reflection of one’s view of reality—the true, good, and beautiful. Leo Spitzer in his book, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, argues that music is a metaphor of the cosmos. Musician Geoffrey Latham describes music as “the vernacular of the human soul.” It points to the spiritual dimension of the person. Victorian philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle went further, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.” Few musicians deny that music as a natural phenomenon is a portal to the spiritual. For this reason, music has always been closely associated with the experience of worship. It establishes the conditions for spiritual connection.
And so we enter the dark, cold, snowy days of February. The fourth Monday in January, this year January 25, is called “Blue Monday,” apparently the most depressing day of the year. But if we reframe these coming days in the light of a sacramental vision of reality, then this is a pregnant liminal season that calls on our faith, perseverance, and hope. This is explicitly when Jesus calls his disciples to remain vigilant and faithful to the task. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night” (Luke 12:38). Will we be faithful between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.—the third watch? The excitement of the night has long past, the silence is now deafening, and the sense of isolation alienating. This is the darkest hours of the night, before the first glimpse of grey appear on the horizon. This is the metaphorical dark night of the soul when the deepest lessons of spiritual life are learned. This is when our foundations are tested, our reliance proved, and God’s presence is most needed and real. These are days pregnant with spiritual possibility.
Embrace the cold and darkness of February, for these are kairos hours of spiritual pilgrimage.