In the Bleak Midwinter
I am so sick of death.
It’s been a year of bereavement. Even before Daddy died we were mourning the cruel progress of disease, hearts fainting before the horrors of each new stage. There were bright moments of sweetness and light, to be sure, little triumphs of love and glimpses of a glory beyond our ken. But there were also moments I long to forget—and know that I never will.
In the midst of one of these more…challenging…seasons last spring, we found out that our darling Great Pyrenees and barn babysitter, Diana, was gravely ill. We brought her home from the emergency vet clinic with broken hearts, presumably to die. But after one night in the house, Di made a break for it—I found her at the barnyard gate, where her goat and sheep charges were keeping an eager lookout for her return. She wagged her tail with a pathetic effort, looking up at me with that gaze of hers that plunged right into my soul. Di and I had always had a very special relationship; from the very beginning she talked to me with her eyes, and I understood her.
“If I’m going to die,” she told me then, “I’m going to do it right here, in my barn, with my charges around me. Don’t make me leave my job until I have to.”
“All right, Di,” I told her, rubbing her silky head. “Have it your way.”
And she did. She rallied. God’s mercy and alternative veterinary medicine gave us hope. Our vet was cautiously optimistic, and I was determinedly confident. She started making her rounds again, patrolling the pastures and barnyard, and even frolicking a bit with our Pyr pup, Flora.
“I need a miracle, God,” I kept insisting. “I need You to let Di get well.”
Diana was the most valiant dog I have ever seen—her heart kept fighting, even after her body couldn’t. But at the end of May she gave up. And something inside of me gave up, too. We buried her on a hill in the eastern pasture—one her favorite spots, and one of the first places the sun touches in the morning. I’d never dug a grave before, and I know I wasn’t really that much help. But it made me feel a little less helpless to work beside my husband in the warm silence of that May night. Plunging that shovel again and again into that stubborn red earth with tears pouring down my face: it was the last thing I could do for her.
Two weeks after Daddy’s funeral, I got the news that the wife of a childhood friend had been killed in a horrific accident, leaving three young children behind.
A few weeks later, my beloved housekeeper, Joan, died of cancer. For fifteen years of Friday mornings, Joan and I had kept this old place from coming apart at the seams, talking from room to room as we worked, tackling windows, woodwork, floors and cat hair with a rhythm that seemed almost choreographed. More than just a housekeeper, Joan was a dear friend and extra mother: I cannot tell you how many cans of Scott’s Liquid Gold we’ve gone through together—or how many hours I’ve spent propped against the kitchen counter taking a goodly dose of advice drawn from the wells of Joan’s practical wisdom. I loved her so much.
“I don’t know how to do Christmas without Joan,” I told Philip the other day.
(But there’s one thing I do know, and it’s that Joan would roll over in her grave if she could see the state of my heart pine floors. She took such pride in them, you’d think they were her own. I’ll never be able to maintain them to her standard.)
In November, Philip’s first cousin sickened and died rather suddenly. It was a hope-laced funeral. But another funeral.
I never want to see that stupid black dress again.
A few weeks ago found us racing our beloved pet Nubian goat, Puck, to a university veterinary hospital a couple of hours away. It was one of those maladies wherein every second counts—I could have kissed the ground when we finally pulled up in front of the large animal wing. The vets were skilled and confident, and set our hearts at ease; we hated to have to leave him, but we knew he was in the best hands in the entire state for the particular surgery he required. A week of persistent hope ensued, with twice daily calls from the doctor on the case, a few niggling concerns, and general reports of the sweetness of Puck’s disposition. Finally, I decided that he just needed to see me in order to rally enough to come home, so I filled up a bag with his favorite greens from the farm, cedar and pine, and headed across the state.
He did perk up when he saw me; everyone marveled at it. But, after all, Puck was my baby—I’d had him since he was less than twenty-four hours old, and, for all his—puckishness—he would let me scratch behind his long Nubian ears and kiss his Roman nose just as long as I pleased. In the evenings, we would walk back to the barn together, my arm slung over his back. He’s even been known to let me tie Christmas ribbons around his neck.
So, of course he was glad to see me, and I him. And even though the treat of the greens I’d brought had to be forestalled because of a second surgery the vets deemed entirely necessary that day, he knew I’d brought them. And he knew I was there. I got to spend a lot of time with him in his stall, and when the surgeons were ready, I was able to walk with him all the way to the surgery bay.
I told him I loved him. (If you’ve never had the love of a Nubian goat in your life, you’re missing out: they’re sensitive, playful, wise and loyal—and what’s more, they love you back.) Then I went to the car to wait.
As I waited, a dark anxiety crept over me. I thought of something a wise older friend once said: that she was learning to praise God, not just for deliverance from crisis, but in the very moment of crisis itself. It was worth a shot—the darkness was so suffocating I had to do something. So I thanked Him for everything I could think of. I prayed for everyone I knew who had known sorrow that year. I prayed for the refugee crisis and I prayed for my sweet, sick goat. I praised God for the comfort of His presence I had known in the past, and I praised Him—falteringly—for withdrawing that comfort.
And I remembered something—or, God brought it to mind, which is more likely.
I remembered back in May, after Diana died, how I’d wandered for days in a paralyzing fog. Daddy was doing so much worse I could neither believe nor bear it; my heart shrank from each visit with him. And then I’d come back home to a world in which there was no Di. It was awful.
I couldn’t pray; I couldn’t talk to God. I couldn’t feel joy.
I couldn’t feel anything, really, but this dull ache of sadness. And even that was blunted, numb.
One morning I went through the motions of a prayer time, but I didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve been mad at You in the past,” I whispered. “I’m not mad at You anymore—I’m afraid of You.”
The moment the words were out of my mouth it was as if something unfurled in my heart. I suddenly had this startlingly clear mental image of how I must have appeared to God at that very minute: balled up like an armadillo, curled imperviously around my own heart to protect it from further bruising. In an instinctive act of subconscious self-defense, I had rolled myself into a big ball of ‘No’.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t get to God—God couldn’t get to me. I believe that He respects our free will too much to violate it, even out of earth-shattering love. But He woos and He waits—which is incomprehensibly astonishing. And when the moment is right, He pulls back the tiniest corner of the veil between what we can see and what is real.
The pain is real, yes. But the joy—and the love and the heart of redemption behind it all—is more real.
Armed with this rather unflattering picture of myself, I began to see how resisting the “bad stuff” in life was essentially denying me of the “good stuff”—the tender mercies and comfort of God; hope, joy and peace; the tang of adventure and the sweet song of dreams. The psychologists all affirm it: shutting down to one emotion is shutting down to all—it’s why people wake up one day unable to feel anything.
It seems natural enough to protect our hearts from grief—to grimly endure or anesthetize with busyness or distraction or exhaustion. But to protect our hearts from grief is to protect our hearts from love. And that’s no way to live.
I had forgotten. I had forgotten that the opposite of joy is not sadness, but fear. I had forgotten (again) that joy and sorrow are twin eggs of the same nest. I had forgotten that love is always worth the pain—always.
I had forgotten that battered hearts are the most beautiful in the end.
And so, I sat there in the early light, with my hands open, whispering ‘Yes’.
Yes to losing Daddy in such a slow and tragic way. Yes to the complexity of life. Yes to the death of my darling Diana and Yes to all the creatures I’ve loved and lost.
Yes to the fact that the seed of Love is shaped exactly like a thorn.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
And then the miracle happened: the sun started coming out again.
“Stay open,” I pleaded with my own heart, sitting there in the car, waiting for news of Puck. “Stay open—the love is worth it.”
Into that little capsule of pleas and imperfect praise came the sudden, sharp ringing of my cell phone: Puck hadn’t made it through the surgery.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone in my entire life. Even in all the heartache of the past year, there had always been a hand to hold—my husband’s, a friend’s, my sister’s. Now I was all by myself, in a strange town, with a grief that just felt like one blow too many.
I cried all the way home, back over all those hours and miles, in rain and rush-hour traffic—for my darling Puck, for Joan, for Daddy, for suffering friends, for the sorrow of the whole world. It’s a wonder my little roadster didn’t fly apart under the pressure of such grief. But it was all just too much. Blinded by pain and tears, I raised a wordless lament, pounding the steering wheel for good measure. But underneath, a rebellious little refrain was gathering, mounting to a final crescendo of agony:
This is not the way it’s supposed to be.
This is not the way it’s supposed to be. All this sadness and bad news and dying. All these anxious phone calls, wars, scary test results, car accidents, terminal diagnoses, ruptured marriages, dogs with cancer, infertility, prodigal children. We hate it, not only because it all hurts like hell, but because eternity itself is encoded in our hearts, telling us that things should be different—in fact, will be, someday. But that doesn’t seem to help much when we’re staggering beneath the bereavement of the way things are.
Of course we feel this way—of course.
But it’s only when we bare our hearts to the pain of this brutal paradox, that our hearts are fully open to the beautiful mystery: God sent His Son right into the very middle of this mess. He broke His centuries-long silence with a baby’s cry. Almighty God became helpless, humble, vulnerable to the hurts and evils of this world, so that we—and our hurts into the bargain—might be redeemed. What on earth does redemption mean but to get back all that is rightfully ours, not because we’re good enough, but because we’re loved enough? Not because we deserve it, but because it’s the way God wanted it to be all along. The story is clear all the way through the Bible: God doesn’t want our sacrifices and our stuff—He wants our hearts. And I believe that He is gathering up everything that has ever broken our hearts to make it all right again in our redemption. I don’t claim to know what that means, particularly this side of heaven. But if there’s one thing I’m not afraid of (and, believe me, there are plenty of things I am!), it’s that God will turn out to be less loving, less good, less tender than I always hoped He’d be.
I wept when I got home that night and found Philip and Bonnie, our Aussie pup, waiting for me on the back steps. I wept when I went down to the barn in the dark, into the goat stall that was now only Hermione’s and Perdita’s. I wept when I thought about Puck’s untasted Christmas greens, and about all the children to whom I’d have to break the news.
Years ago, not long after Philip and I got married, I was lamenting playfully with some of my girlfriends over my fierce sentiments surrounding Christmas.
“I cry when we put the tree up, and I cry when we take the tree down!” I chirped.
Everyone laughed, but a well-intentioned older woman in our midst spotted a teachable moment.
“Lanier, someday you’re going to have a lot more to cry over than taking down your Christmas tree,” she said.
Her words fell like a pall, and everyone stopped laughing. I was too shy to say it out loud, but mentally I replied, “Well, then, I’ll cry about that, too.”
She was right, of course.
But so was I.
Because if the buffeting of years has done anything, it’s deepened my delight in Christmas. It’s made my Dayspring’s visit more precious than ever. The candles on my Advent wreath blooming out against an early winter twilight reach some deeper, keener place that sorrow has opened in my soul. The dawn of a December morning baptizing the world with rose-hearted gold is almost too beautiful to bear, for I know what it points to.
For passed is yon dully night
Aurora has the cloudes pierced,
The Sun is risen with gladsome light…
And when we sit quietly in the barn in the evenings and listen to the contented clucks and grunts and hay-munchings of our animals, my heart kneels to the wonder of it all. O magnum mysterium.
The sheep love their Christmas apples!
Our hearts are battered. There is an empty chair at our table, and a bright spirit has gone out of our barn.
And, yet—strangely, impossibly—I have more to celebrate, not less.
A fragment of a verse has been humming away at the back of my mind this Advent season, so persistent I finally looked it up. Yet will I rejoice…
It comes from the book of Habakkuk, that singular little Old Testament tussle with the most bothersome question of all: if God is supposedly so good, why does He permit such awful things to happen? It’s a one-sided quarrel with God (I might know a thing or two about those), but after a series of complaints and honest questions, the good prophet wraps up his argument with one of the most beautiful assertions of faith in the whole Bible:
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Why? Because He is the God of salvation. Because God is not limited by appearances or bound by our circumstances. Because there is always, always more to the story—as George MacDonald said, “Good is always coming.” What the prophets saw afar off we now celebrate in present actuality: Immanuel. God did not leave all this brokenness unredeemed. He went straight to the very saddest thing of all—our separation from Him—and He made it untrue.
Sorrow isn’t meaningless, and it isn’t permanent. But it’s tempting to think He owes me something for all this sadness. Okay, I reason with Him, I know there’s beauty in the bad. Now do something good.
Which only goes to show how much I have to learn.
Last year's plum pudding
Advent, like grief, is such a keen time, loaded with expectations and longings for impossible things. Advent is audacious with hope; it is pregnant with miracle. Which is why, I believe, it’s also haunted with the inconsolable sting of the way things ought to be. More than any other season of the year, perhaps, we feel our loss and our lack; we grieve alike for things that are no more and things that never have been. We all want our own Christmas miracle, our own personal annunciation and supernatural fulfillment.
(I want my Daddy back. So bad I can hardly stand it.)
But when God comes to us bringing good, it’s usually not what we expect.
Jesus’s birth was exactly not what people were expecting.
And yet, God in Christ flung Himself over the chasm between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This yearly celebration of that fact gives all of us permission to acknowledge the paradoxes and seeming discrepancies of life—to open our hearts and hands to the life that is, to the gifts just waiting to be mined in our present circumstances. To the Light the darkness just cannot comprehend or overcome, and the Dawn that knows no setting.
Fra Giovanni was right: No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today.
So was Wendell Berrry: We live the given life, and not the planned.
And yet we will rejoice. We will rejoice and rejoice and rejoice because He didn’t do it our way. We will honor the re-routed life of an obscure young Jewish girl and we will search our own hearts for the least glimmer of such trust. We will drag live trees into our homes, knowing full well we’ll be cleaning up needles and sap for the next twelve months, and spangle them with some of the most beautiful and breakable things we own. (I mean, think about it—it’s gloriously ludicrous!) We will stand in drafty cathedrals choking over carols we’ve known all our lives while angels throng the air around us. We will wear ourselves out over holly boughs and flour and spices and prickly cedar and roses and cakes and casseroles and Yorkshire puddings as if our King were coming for dinner. We will remember more lighthearted days, when we thought things would be like that forever, and we will smile at our beloved ghosts and thank God that those days have been. We will cherish that bright sadness hovering over the crèche in the corner of the room, and lean into the Story all over again. We will step out into the frosty silence of Christmas Eve and look at the stars and suddenly find them brilliant, elongated, expanding under a quick burden of tears.
(Perhaps we will even steal down to a barn at midnight, if we happen to have one handy, just to see the animals kneeling.)
We will, if only for one miracle-laden feast of days, draw near to the greatest mystery of all time: God is with us because He loves us.
Dancing with Daddy at my Christmas party, 2005
Isn’t that just the astonishing thing about Christmas—that after all the centuries of hurt and brokenness and disappointment and despair, the world still turns itself upside-down for joy?
As the years pass, I’m less and less concerned about getting caught up in the trappings of the season for their own sake. More and more I’m thankful for all these very touchable, tangible ways to honor the mystery, to draw near with all my senses, to create a space—through ritual and tradition, taste, touch, scent, sight, sound—for eternity to intersect with domesticity.
It’s not just commercial to celebrate Christmas, or indulgent, or naïve. It’s brave, friends. It’s courage incarnate.
If you’re hurting this Christmas, know you are beloved of a God whose special concern is the brokenhearted.
If you’re rejoicing, don’t let fear have your joy, even for a moment.
And know that you, all of you whose eyes may happen to fall on these words, are dear to me. For you I pray on this frosty December morning, that, now and forever, your day may break and your shadows flee away.
"There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see--and to see we have only to look." ~Fra Giovanni