Friday, January 06, 2006

A Walk Through Winter Woods

I took a walk this morning on the hill behind my family home. Snow flakes were falling among the trees, descending from the misty white sky to land on moist brown leaves covering the ground. I walked along a familiar path, sometimes stopping to watch the snow fall around me. I saw leaves on the floor holding tiny puddles of melted snow and feathery grasses catching delicate flakes. The birds sung among the trees, gently swaying in the soft wind. The smell of wood burning stoves in nearby homes brought a distinctive scent to the air.

The city and suburbs with their man-made structures constructed from artificial materials, tiny close-clipped lawns, strategically placed shade trees, and neatly arranged landscapes deny people the joy of immersion in the overwhelming beauty and power of creation, an icon that points us to the Creator Himself.

Everyone doesn’t like winter. Naked trees that look like splintered sticks jut out from the ground and lifeless leaves hang loosely from branches. Some rest silently on the cold earth among hay-golden weeds. Everything looks dead. I like it still.

The forest in winter isn’t merely a place of death and barrenness. It’s a place full of hope and potentiality where things lay dormant, waiting. When winter turns to spring the naked will be clothed with vibrant green and the dead will give way to life.

As I walked along, a thin branch of thorns caught my clothes. Thorns have a long history. In the beginning of time our first ancestors lived in Paradise. Discontented, they turned away from their Creator, the source of life and harmony, renouncing their intimate spiritual communion with the Creator in favor of self-centeredness and separation. When they separated themselves from the One who is the source of all life they brought death, physical and spiritual, into the world, upon us and the whole creation. No longer would humanity enjoy the good life. Our first parents’ sin cursed the ground, the same ground we have inherited: “It shall bring forth thorns and thistles to you, and you shall eat from the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken. You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Why does death exist in the world? Our race, humanity, has turned away from our Creator since the beginning. The spiritual deadness, disharmony, and corruption in our personal lives is intertwined with the physical death, chaos, and decay of the whole world. As our good and loving Creator gives us spring after winter, He also gives us spiritual healing, forgiveness, and renewal when we hurt ourselves by our own sinful pride, self-centeredness, and rebellion.

A walk through the woods during winter can remind us of our own spiritual journeys. In times when our relationship with the Creator seems rather lifeless, we can always look forward with faith and hope to the spring, when we will be renewed. Our ancestors’ sin brought death into the world, but God, because of His great love for humanity, came into the world to destroy sin and death so that we, with the whole creation, may be restored to our newly-created glory.

In His birth, Jesus Christ, the One “though whom all things were made,” joined His divinity to our humanity. In His baptism He purified and sanctified the waters of the earth for our baptism. In His crucifixion on the cross and resurrection from the grave He destroyed the power of sin and death within the creation. Even though we turned away from our Creator, He came after us, like the father who ran to meet his prodigal son, returning home from a self-destructive life of sin. God created us in His own image and likeness. He desires for us to regain our image and likeness so that we may be truly human, the way he created us to be. As I walked in the woods, I saw evidence of God’s good favor. Even in winter the forest shines with beauty and, although signs of death abound, life remains: evergreen trees reach into the sky, deer leave their tracks impressed in the soft mud, and birds sing among the branches.

How do we turn toward our Creator, the source of life, away from our self-destructive way of being and behaving? The way back to Paradise is repentance. Repentance means to change one’s mind. It is like walking down a path, turning around, and walking the other way. Repentence is a lifelong journey, a journey that leads us to Paradise, the renewal of our human nature, and to our goal, theosis, when we perfectly reflect the brilliant, eternal image and likeness of our Creator. This “journey” is the Orthodox Christian way of life, a practical lifestyle that brings transformation through the joining of our personal freedom with God’s healing grace.

Americans live in a cultural environment where ignoring the ever-present spiritual reality can be easy. We need reminding about how sinful and corrupt we are, and how loving and powerful our Creator is. Great Lent, which begins forty days before Pascha (Easter), is an important time of year when the Church reminds us to honestly look into our own hearts to see those aspects of our lives that have descended into lifeless darkness and that need renewed. Great Lent is not a time for feeling sorry for ourselves or beating ourselves up, but a season for admitting and dealing with our own souls, who we really are. By turning away from our own selfish and self-destructive desires, God can transform our dormant spirituality into reality, our deadness into vibrant life, our ignorance into experiential knowledge, our corruption into purity, our separation into communion, our disequilibrium into harmony, our chaos into peace, and our self-centeredness into perfect love.

Great Lent is coming in a few months. We can all look forward to walking down this winter path, recognizing the coldness in our own hearts, toward Pascha, when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, who warms our hearts to melt the coldness therein by the pure light of His divine love. Great Lent is on the way, but let's begin to look at our hearts right now. Let’s look into the depths of our souls to find the effects of sin and spiritual corruption so that we may turn away from the sickness that will destroy us and turn toward our loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who creates, heals, sustains, and eternally renews.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photograph copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.