I sorrow not though the world is wrapped in sleep
I sorrow not though the icy winds blast
I sorrow not though the snow falls hard and deep
I sorrow not this too shall soon be past
The most poignant quality of the Winter Solstice festival is hope; a little spark of brightness at the darkest moment. No matter what our beliefs may be, hope is something we all endeavour to hold on to; being without hope feels deathly. But what is it that enables us to feel this most cherished of states even when all around us might suggest that our hope is merely an act of self-delusion?
A couple of Solstices back, we were in Tintagel in Cornwall. We had walked up to St Madron’s, the little church on the cliff. Once inside, I had lit some of the candles next to the beautiful Mary statue and sat contemplating the light that now filled the stillness of that simple space. The wind roared outside but the thick stone walls – so often buffeted by the fierce winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean – enclosed and held us. In the dusk, with the weather groaning and heaving outside and the candle light warming the greying light, I felt the most extraordinary peace. I felt safe, as safe and peaceful as the occasional times of sleeping in my mother’s bed as a child, an event that – like no other – made me feel that nothing would or could harm me. A couple of days later, we found ourselves back in St Madron’s on another windy night, listening to beautiful choral music; the voice of the powerful winds circling the building and the voices of the choir that filled its inner space, moved me to tears that night.
There is a beautiful modern altar window in St Madron’s that depicts the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons but there are also smaller, older windows that personify ‘faith’, ‘charity’ and, of course, ‘hope’. They seemed very apt standing before them at midwinter, knowing that the coldest weather was yet to come. So what is at the heart of these qualities that we might derive some wisdom and guidance from? It is true that we can be hopeful in happy times, when life is going well but hope really comes into its own when we ourselves are being buffeted by the fierceness of living; floored and wrong footed by the strength of it and the seeming powerlessness of our actions. Faith, hope and charity seem like such quaint Victorian concepts but on deeper inspection, they are all guiding lights in the darkest times.
For me ‘faith’ is not blind acceptance of dogma regardless of appropriateness; faith is about trusting in the direction that life and one’s spiritual journey will take you – it is actually a perpetual process of losing and regaining one’s faith and trust, moving into those moments of hopelessness that we might touch upon the mystery of Grace in our lives. Grace’s impact works best when all hope seems to be lost. Charity is not only about a duty of generosity to others, it is also about retaining an open heart, a generosity towards life itself; it is an unclenching of the spirit and an eagerness to share ourselves authentically; to step beyond our own fears, obsessions and self-preoccupations to truly be able to give of ourselves, to others and to the world, and in doing so, be willing and trusting enough to receive. In these ways, Charity and Faith feed and bolster our Hope; they give us the evidence that life and people are essentially good, that there is indeed much to be hopeful about.
However, there will be moments when we feel so low that hope appears lost. We need to sit and be, allow that darkness to enfold us like those meter thick walls in Cornish churches; let that enfolding take the brunt of stormy weather whilst we sit silently and wait for the light to slowly grow. Have you ever noticed that when we light a candle at night in an unlit room and focus on its flame, the periphery of our vision is filled with the darkness; this darkness – like those sturdy walls of St Madron’s Church – can enclose and support us; it is not the place where hope dies; it is the fertile and mysterious void where hope is born. Out of the darkness comes light and this is the simple and powerful message of the Winter Solstice. At this place of apparent lack, we find a small, still moment of Grace, sparking into being. Both Pagans and Christians symbolise this moment with the birth of a child – never a more appropriate image.
I started by asking what it is that enables us to hope beyond hope. I think it is because we know what it is to experience love – whether being loved, cherished and protected by our mothers or other loved ones or guardians, friends, lovers or children; we loving in return, knowing how extraordinary a feeling that is. Even if we are totally alone in the world and even if love feels utterly lost to us, the memory of love is powerful; the essence of love is everywhere, in the beauty of the natural world and in the simple gestures of human living whether it be the acknowledgement of self gifted by the passing smile of a stranger or any of the countless little things that fill our day with meaning.
I wish for you a Solstice filled with love and the sure knowledge that the sun will always rise again. I wish also that you might discover, time and again, that Hope is the clear, bright note of the heart and soul, struck in the still darkness, its sound rippling out through the blackness to call you home.