Stephen Martin
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My chapped and bleeding knuckles are the first sign that maybe he is right. “Cold days and nights make prayer easier,” James Martin, S.J., once wrote. It was a passing sentence in a column not at all about the weather. But those words came to me as I glanced down at my hand, surprised by the smears of red across two leathery fingers.

As always, my hands tell the story of the season: calloused from digging in the spring, speckled with poison ivy in the summer, now cracked and creased like an old man’s. Prayer has never been particularly easy for me. But when I do pray, it is with these hands. Winter is the only time I do not take them for granted. They sting and they ache just enough to be noticed. They heal just enough to turn raw again. The days and the weeks creep along. The cold toys with my patience. The cold keeps me wide awake. Discomfort and alertness: they make prayer possible.

Praising God in Ordinary Things

The desert fathers worshiped in the scorching heat of the midday sun. But I am most drawn to believers who found God in the freezing cold. Take Brother Lawrence. I had washed a lot of dishes and cooked a lot of pasta and never seen a dime’s worth of value in any of it, until I read The Practice of the Presence of God. “Lord of all pots and pans and things,” wrote this obscure cook in a 17th-century French monastery, “make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.”

Brother Lawrence writes about praising God with every motion. It is a simple premise, and it has been changing lives for nearly 400 years. Prayer, he concluded, did not need to be so hard. We should just do what we have to do anyway and think of God as we are doing it. “We can do little things for God,” he said. “It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

There was a time when Brother Law-rence was just like you or me—an ordinary Catholic trying his best. Then one cold day he spotted a bare tree and could not stop staring at it. He thought about how dead it looked then, about how it would miraculously bloom with life when spring arrived. The knowledge overwhelmed him; it made him a believer. We have his book as proof. Here is another fact: without winter, we would have none of this.

With God in Russia

Without the ripping, roaring winds of the Arctic, we would not have Walter Ciszek, S.J. Without Ciszek, we would not have He Leadeth Me. This is a rather obscure book with a clunky title. It is also the best how-to manual on prayer I have ever read. Ciszek, an American Jesuit priest, was captured by the Russians during World War II and fingered as a spy. He endured 23 years of confinement in the Soviet Union—most of it in the brutal gulags of Siberia—before he was abruptly shipped back to the United States in 1963. Bleeding fingers were the least of his problems. “Frostbite and stomach rumblings, swollen feet, running eyes, chapped lips and battered knuckles, sprains and cramps, and aches and bruises—all these the body patiently endured through the long, long days of labor in the driving snow or freezing rain or spring muck of the Far North,” Ciszek wrote of his experience in Russia.

This, in a nutshell, is what he learned from those hellish years: “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted for me was to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.” Doing that, Ciszek acknowledges, is excruciatingly tough: “What this means, in practice, is spelled out as always by the poor old body. It means getting up each morning and going to bed exhausted. It means the routine, not the spectacular. It can mean drudgery, pain, putting aside pleasures, happiness, or the love the human heart craves until another time, so that what is necessary at the moment can be done.”

Breathing Thanks

Winter helped make a saint of Walter Ciszek. Maybe it can help me, too. My life in suburbia is free of gulags and firing squads. Yet I do know a little about snow and sleet and slicing winds. I know they call me back to my poor old body like no other season can. Winter sends illnesses that make my throat throb and my arms and legs shake. It chases me from my car to my office and back again, head bowed, shoulders bunched. It hammers home what is out of my hands, rudely reminds me that I have hands at all.

Come late October, when the temperature drops below freezing and it is pitch black at 6 a.m., I used to suspend my early morning outdoor jogs. The treadmill in my cozy house seemed so much more appealing. I mentioned this one day to my boss, an avid runner and retired U.S. Navy admiral. In his estimation, I was a pansy. “I lived in upstate New York and that never stopped me! Just put on a jogging suit and go!” he proclaimed. So now I do. My favorite moment always comes at the end, after three miles on the roads. I am walking up the driveway toward the back door, gloved hands on my hips, looking into the woods behind my house. Everything is cold and clean and still. I stop for a moment at the back gate to take it all in. I exhale, and my breath swirls up toward the trees. It is possible to thank God without even trying.

Stephen Martin has written for Commonweal and U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Greensboro, N.C. 

Comments

CHARLES SPECHT | 2/23/2009 - 7:21pm
Stephen Martin in his "In Praise of Winter" references a "rather obscure book with a clunky title," namely, Walter Ciszek's "He Leadeth Me." I couldn't agree more with his endorsement of this work as "the best how-to manual on prayer I have ever read." A shoe salesman quite fittingly (if you've read this book you know why) recommended this work some years ago when I was searching for a pair of comfortable dress shoes to wear for my daughter's wedding. As much as I love the insights of Augustine, Eckhart, The Cloud, the praying Carmelites, Julian and more recent writers none compare with the impact of Ciszek's work on my own spiritual journey.Thanks to Martin for his lovely reflection and in the process bringing this wonderful book to the fore.

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