I awaken this morning to the heaviest snowfall of this Tennessee winter. Winter has lost whatever charm it still had for most southerners this year. I remain in the great minority of southerners who enjoy a long winter. I haven’t always been this way. The love of winter has grown as I’ve aged. It’s not the hope for regular snowfall, though I’ve always been who loves the snow. This year, I discovered a new love for the mystery and beauty of winter before the first snowflake fell on Tennessee soil. On streets and wooded footpaths; on sunny mornings and overcast afternoons; on dark and quiet nights; I’ve grown to love the soul space that only winter brings.
At first it was exercise that motivated me to walk in the cold. Then I discovered how my soul was more awake because I was moving through cold and barren landscapes. Walking these past few months has become both a physical and spiritual exercise. Winter walks have become a form of prayer with no speech involved.
Winter Walking & Loving Your Neighbors
God has always led his people into the wilderness to seek Him. Jesus is led by the Spirit in the wilderness to live by the Word of God alone. Living in the congested spaces of suburban communities, it’s not easy to move toward a physical wilderness close by. Where space doesn’t offer a wilderness, times and seasons usher a quiet stillness without traveling miles away. If you live in the suburbs and you crave solitude, your best hope for hearing silence in the suburbs is on a winter walk while your neighbors hibernate from the cold. And as you pass their homes, seeing the warm glow from living rooms, it becomes natural to intercede for those neighbors you do not even know. Christ said to love your neighbors and sometimes love means walking by your neighbor’s home and praying peace over the households near your own.
Solitude and Vision in an Urban Wilderness
After a few weeks of walking the streets around my house, I still needed a more open terrain. I can grow tired of pavement and need the feel of solid earth beneath my feet. Thanks to some wonderful and dedicated leaders in Knoxville, I’ve been able to enjoy numerous trails in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Fifteen minutes from my house, I’m able to walk a network of wooded trails that take me along quiet streams and lofty bluffs, over hills and ridges.
In a matter of weeks, these same trails will be highly trafficked by mountain bikers and hiking groups. But in the winter, you can walk for hours without seeing another person on wheels or on foot. The loudest noise might be the cadence of your own footsteps. And it is that cadence that awakens the soul to the act of prayer inherent within walking.
Walking in any season helps the mind settle and you can finally, in the words of Frederick Buechner, ‘listen to your life.’ It is the silence that winter uniquely brings that calls the soul to listen to the world—both the outer world it inhabits and the inner world of the soul. If I accept it, the Holy Spirit will use winter to awaken my hunger for holy silence.
Not only does the sound of winter’s silence bring peace to my soul, I also have a new affection for what these barren landscapes reveal. Walking the trails of the Urban Wilderness, I discover that I can see more features of the landscape than I can see in the spring and summer seasons. My vision is sharper and clearer in the winter. After autumn’s foilage loosens from trees and burrows in the earth, it becomes possible to see the terrain of ridges and hill much more clearly. I’ve walked some of these same trails in the spring and summer, yet I could never see the landscape in its wholeness. The scents and sights of leaves and blossoms are wonderful all their own, yet they shield my vision from seeing a broader perspective of the ground I traverse. I cannot appreciate the beauty of slopes and streams and trees and ponds in one view until I begin walking the muddy winter trails of the Urban Wilderness. There have been a few moments where I stand still and would say within myself, ‘I see the shape of this place now.’
So also when we enter the winter wilderness of the soul. Winter rewards us with illuminating visions when we endure its chilly winds and melancholy days.
Welcome and Farewell, Winter
I don’t expect that my fellow southerners will suddenly embrace this long winter and venture onto footpaths and city streets seeking solace within. Probably best to wait until the ice thaws and snow melts, anyway.
But even if cabin and spring fever cannot be abated, I can give a witness that winter need not be a sworn enemy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ Walking in winter has helped me embrace the gift of silence, solitude, and vision that only this season brings.
Where I agree with my southern friends is that winter can indeed wear out its welcome. I can feel a turning in my soul, a readiness for spring, too. I, too, long for the first sight of a dandelion’s bloom. I’m waiting to hear the robin’s song. My soul needs the hope that God reveals through green leaves. Yet I hope the scents, sights, and sounds of spring will be more alive because I’ve embraced their absence, too. When I walk shaded footpaths on the glory of a May afternoon, I’ll know the landscape a bit better for having seen its wholeness in the dead of winter.