How the Deep, Dark Season of Winter Nourishes the Soul

Judith Valente
Dec 22, 2019 · 4 min read
A single candle burns alongside blue glass bottles on a window sill looking out on a snowy woods.
A single candle burns alongside blue glass bottles on a window sill looking out on a snowy woods.
The necessity in winter of spending time indoors invites us to look inward. (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly)

Here in the Midwest where I live, the Winter Solstice occurred at 10:16 last night. That was the moment when the earth’s northern hemisphere tilted farthest from the sun and then began to reverse course.

The longest night of the year is behind us. Now daylight grows longer, if only a few seconds each day.

We might fear darkness, but it is essential to creation. About 85 percent of the universe consists of dark matter that does not absorb, reflect or emit light. In underground darkness, the soil revives itself during the winter months, preparing a place for new shoots to burst open in spring.

Likewise, the darkest periods of our lives often illuminate a new path forward. At least that is how it has been many times for me.

Like many people I used to dread the coming of winter with its cold weather, shorter days and added layers of clothing. The more I age, though, the more I recognize the subtle beauty of this season.

Winter encourages us to settle down. The necessity of spending time indoors invites us to look inward. This is a time for sweeping out the dust that’s accumulated in the psyche over the course of a year. These are the days for brewing a steaming cup of tea and sitting quietly reading in a warm room.

In their book, “The Circle of Life,” Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr write, “Let us remember and embrace the positive, enriching aspect of winter’s darkness. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative generation for you.”

“This is a time for sweeping out the dust that’s accumulated in the psyche over the course of a year.”

A snow-covered barn surrounded by a bare tree and an evergreen.
A snow-covered barn surrounded by a bare tree and an evergreen.
Many cultures recognize the rich potential for reflection and rest in the winter season. (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly)

The Danish practice hygge, the art of staying cozy. The Dutch embrace niksen, the pleasure of doing nothing. Niksen by the way, is a verb in Dutch. To do nothing requires a conscious act.

The Swedish aim for lagom — reclaiming a sense of balance in their lives. Italians ascribe to la dolce fa niente, the ‘sweet do nothing.’ It is a recognition that the need for repose extends beyond winter to all seasons.

We have no such vocabulary in English. Perhaps it’s because many of us suffer from two distinctly American illnesses: workaholism and over-achieverism.

Only about 19 percent of Americans take their full allotment of vacation time. And when we do, we don’t truly niksen. We confuse lagom, a year-round pursuit of balance, with a short getaway to Puerta Vallarta or some other place where we fill our days equally, just with different types of activities.

As the poet Charles Pequy once noted, “They have the courage to work/They lack the courage to be idle.”

A snow-covered shoreline embraces a frozen lake.
A snow-covered shoreline embraces a frozen lake.
Americans’ penchant for workaholism can make it difficult to simply remain still and reflect on what really matters. (Photo by J. Alden Marlatt)

Winter reminds us of another important lesson. As the Scandinavian author Signe Johansen, writes. “We can’t control outside events, but we can control ourselves.”

A brick bell tower sits amid a field in front of a woods shrouded in mist beneath a rising moon.
A brick bell tower sits amid a field in front of a woods shrouded in mist beneath a rising moon.
When trees are bare and foliage thins, we can often see sights concealed at other times of the year. (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly)

It is the season that lends itself to seeing broader vistas. In winter, when the trees are bare and the foliage thins, I can detect things that lie concealed the rest of the year: a barn, a bridge, a bird’s nest tucked between branches.

Just the other day, driving in the countryside, I noticed a blue house standing in a field behind a bank of bare-limbed trees. I hadn’t known that lovely house was there.

Because of winter’s deeper darknesses, I appreciate more profoundly those nights brightened by a full moon, the distant light in someone’s living room seen from the highway, or the dazzle of a fireplace.

In the weeks ahead, can we cultivate a sense of coziness and contentment wherever we are? Can we reflect on those parts of our lives that need ‘lagom,’ greater balance? Can we look beyond the darkness and discover a broader vision for ourselves? Can we have the courage to see that doing nothing is not only necessary at times, it can also be holy?

A bridge crosses a snow-covered path in woods.
A bridge crosses a snow-covered path in woods.
The dark days of winter can illuminate new paths for us in life if we take the time to reflect. (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly)
Judith Valente

Written by

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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