The secret ministry of frost - Madonna Magazine

The secret ministry of frost

Margaret-Mary Flynn 10 March 2017

The frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind …

Coleridge’s poem Frost at Midnight is one of my favourite poems, and I love the turning of the seasons that brings me to my battered old paperback each year to rediscover it.

It is a poem of contrasts—light and dark, shelter and exposure, warmth and ice. The poet sits up late by the fire, pondering. His mind’s eye contemplates the frosty landscape in the darkness, beautiful and mysterious. He gazes at his sleeping baby, and dreams blessings for the child, a life lived freely, in harmony with nature. The father’s world seems to contract to this one room, warm and safe, whilst at the same time his spirit is intensely aware of creation, seasons and time, and of life past and to come.

There are often minus-degree nights where I live, when the doona comes into its own, and we wake up to a frosted world. Every leaf is outlined in white, and the clothes on the line are like cut-out cards.

The sun rises up over the hill, and brings a day as clear as glass. Steam rises from the roofs and the road. As I take my walk, my breath puffs white before me, and the icy grass crunches underfoot. Back home for breakfast, I love the ritual of the teapot and milk jug, the warm smell of toast, the crispness of the morning sounds in the still air.

It’s easy to miss the gifts of winter. Those who love the sun mourn the closing-in of the days, travelling to and from work in darkness, and the chill grey damp. They are not grateful for the rain that keeps them indoors, and dream and plan holidays in climates ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next’.

But winters must come in our lives, and there are wintry places in our souls. It’s in the fallow time that we can sit and be with those parts of our story that need our waiting. Unbeautiful and imperfect days are also gifts.

Who of us does not carry a bundle of past memories that rise unbidden to diminish us?
Sometimes it is old hurts and scars—ours and others’. A careless word, a cruel shaming. An unreceived apology. Things said and left unsaid. Things done and left undone … Unfinished business.

The raconteur Garrison Keilor once wryly observed, ‘I owe term papers to professors who are dead!’

As the rains fall and the cold winds nip at our heels, we learn again the lesson that our hearts also have their seasons of desolation and contraction. Just as surely as the Earth will tilt towards the sun once more, so will consolation return. We learn to endure what comes, to accept in our souls the quiet mystery that no prayer goes unheard.

Winter, the dark time, is also the time of deep growing. We gather with our loved ones around hearths and tables. We eat the warm, comforting foods that simmer gently, or roast slowly, filling the kitchen with appetising fragrance.

The garden sleeps; the sap returns to the roots. It’s the time for pruning, and cutting back, for turning over the sweet earth, and letting the rain soak in. We transplant and re-pot, and clear out the spent growth of summer. We rake up the last of the leaves from the past, and compost them. And then we wait.

We sleep more deeply, and it seems right to cherish those pastimes and jobs which require us to turn within ourselves, calling on inner reserves and talents. Winter calls us to ponder and to take stock. If we let it, it can be a time of tranquillity, in which we grow in understanding of what we truly value and desire.

Sitting at midnight in mid-winter, Coleridge’s deep prayer for his baby is that the child will grow in harmony with nature and grace, to

… see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The word God speaks is Love, the Word-made-flesh is Jesus, our friend and brother, whose words teach us the Eternal in all things—lilies of the field; sparrows that fall; wise and foolish bridesmaids; widows and sons; bread and wine. We have a God-with-us, a sure and certain comfort.

The best of all winter’s gifts is the peace that gratitude brings: for light and warmth in the darkness; for all that we have been given along the way; for a home, and for all the small and lovely things which make it so for us; for second chances and other mercies; for beauty; for the gifts of speech and story; and for

… the secret ministry of frost …
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.


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