"In the bleak midwinter,
icy winds may moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone...
What then can I give Him,
Empty as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man,
I would know my part.
What then can I give Him?
I must give my heart."
James Taylor's version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a sound that speaks more than all the words lined-up, ready to dance through the singer's lips and fall like gentle snow on the shoulder of its listener. I've heard this song performed by other extraordinary singers, choirs, and recording artists, but few match the sound of this one recording for me.
This afternoon I went to find an earlier post that used a Corinne May recording, that is also quite lovely, and discovered that I have written a piece each year using this Christina Rossetti lyric as a keynote. So I am including all three of those "In the Bleak Midwinter" posts here in case you would like to read them.
Now for this year's "In the Bleak Midwinter" story.
It was a cold February morning and I was on crutches after severely injuring my ankle in "freak fall" earlier that month. I'd found my peace the first day, while lying in bed struggling with pain that seemed to shatter my thoughts and send them splintering off in un-focused directions of terror and aloneness, when I picked up my Bible lesson and read the statement, "..and the Lord was with Joseph." And it struck me immediately that if the Lord was with Joseph in prison, he was with me, right there in bed, and it became all that mattered...all that I cared, or wanted to think, about . He'd been with Nelson Mandela in prison, Jesus in the sepulchre, Corrie Ten Boom in a concentration camp...their examples of finding a resonant peace and an unshaken dignity in the midst of bleak conditions gave me strength.
The same friend who'd called earlier that morning to check in, knowing that my husband was working out of state, got the girls to school, picked up our puppy, and brought food and crutches. But once she'd left, I was alone...with God. The details of that story are found in a post from last February titled, "And he walks with me..." (linked here). The next few weeks, once the girls were at school, were spent alone at home with my divine Parent. I was able to "crutch" to the car and drive the girls to school and back, but once up the stairs and in the house again, I'd remain pretty non-ambulatory...at my desk or in bed taking calls, praying and writing.
After a few weeks however, I was still crutching around, unable to put any weight on the ankle, and the swelling was still quite evident. I'd gotten down the icy front steps without incident one morning so that I could drive the girls to school, but when I pulled back into the driveway I hadn't noticed that short walk from the driveway to the steps was covered with black ice. I placed my crutches on the ground and swung myself off the front seat and as I balanced on my "good foot" lifting the crutches to the next position forward, the rubber caps on the bottom of the crutches slipped on the ice and I lost my balance hitting the ground hard...ground that stood "hard as iron...water like a stone" covering its surface.
The fall hurt, knocked the wind out of me, I wasn't sure how I would get to a standing position without crawling all the way up the steps and to be honest I just felt humiliated, tired, and as broken as the poor Nutcracker in Tchaikovsky's ballet. But in my case there was no Sugar Plum fairy to spirit me off to the Land of Sweets and make me whole again. There was no husband, there was no ...oh my gosh, there was no cell phone.
That was when I started to panic. My cell phone had flow out of my hand and was ringing from under the bushes that surround our front porch. I felt helpless and hopeless. I wanted to cry...I wanted to cry "uncle"...enough!
That was when I actually felt the first gentle touch of God's hand on my shoulder, "shshhing" me and asking me to "be still," and I stopped long enough to actually listen. With my elbows in the dirt and my legs all akimbo under me on the hard ground of winter, the strains of "...earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone..." started singing through my heart.
I rolled onto my back and looked up at the bleak gray winter sky and let the plaintive "sound" of the last verse speak to me of God's care for a baby in a cold manger, a man in a prison cell, and me on "earth as hard as iron". I grasped the full weight of the last verse in my heart:
"What then can I give him
Empty as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise man,
I would know my part.
What then can I give him?
I must give my heart.
I stayed there on my back letting the warm weight of those words sink into the core of my being. I stared up though the moaning black fingers of the bare dogwood tree...and her overarching neighbor, the ancient prickly pod-decorated sweet gum tree...at a sky so gray and steely I could actually feel the word "bleak" with my eyes. So I closed them and pushed my focus inward towards the space of my heart. I wondered, "How could I give Christ my heart in that moment...crumpled on the walkway?"
And I realized it was simple. I could be conscious. I could be grateful. I could love, and pray, and sing, and think, and "praise God"...Laus Deo! I could do all those things. I was able-minded. I was fully capable of loving. And, I could make more of a difference in the world from a position of abject humility, rather than standing strong and hard as iron, anyway. I was right where I needed to be in that moment...that was all I needed to know. I could give my heart.
So I did. I stayed focused on the space of my heart...the cold ground, the damp air, the gray sky lost their bleakness. I let love pour out in radiant waves of affection...stronger and stronger... with each ripple spreading farther and farther out from its center. Love for my husband, my children, my family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, community, the world, the universe...larger and larger, concentric circles of appreciation, respect, honor, blessing, peace reaching out from the living, breathing, glowing molten magma core of Love that abides in each of us.
I don't know how long I lay there. I only know it was long enough to melt the ice I was lying on. And when I opened my eyes, I saw that the mailman was approaching at a pretty good clip, with a look of genuine concern on his face. I assured him that I was fine...and I was.
He helped me right myself, find my bearings, brush myself off, retrieve my phone from under the bushes, get my books from the car, spryly crutch up the front steps, before handing me the mail...as I thanked him for all he had done. He told me that he usually drove his truck through our neighborhood in the winter, delivering mail from the warmth of his vehicle, but that this morning he had felt almost pulled from his vehicle by the desire to go door-to-door hoping to run into someone and strike up a conversation. So with that...we did.
We had a lovely conversation about his family, our neighborhood, my children, his parents, the schools, my husband's work, health care, and God. I'd learned once again, as Mary Baker Eddy assures us, that:
"The very circumstance, which your suffering sense
deems wrathful and afflictive,
Love can make an angel entertained unawares."
It was a perfect morning for entertaining angels...in the bleak midwinter.
Kate Robertson, CS