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Into the Barren Winter

Lenten Reflection

Editor’s Note: As we transition from winter to spring, Programs Manager, Emily Norton reflects on the vulnerability of winter and the lessons that can be learned from sitting with the bareness of nature.

Do trees in the winter feel ashamed of their nakedness?

Or do they fully embrace the colder months when their beautiful leafless branches glisten in the winter sun?

In “Just As You Are,” the author Paul Coutinho challenged readers to look at the creation story in a whole new light. From my reading, he  emphasized how the worst part of Adam and Eve’s original sin was that it caused them to no longer see the beauty of their stark naked selves – their true authentic selves, created in the image of God.

Where are you?” asked God.

Adam responded, “I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid” (Genesis 3:10) Adam and Eve were not previously clothed, so why did they all of a sudden hide and try to cover their nakedness? The reflection offered a thought-provoking answer to this question – Adam and Eve’s sin caused them to no longer be able to find beauty and joy from purest form of how God created them, and instead they were ashamed of their nakedness.

From then on, we, as humans, as children of God, seem to have continued to find different masks, pretenses and separations that shield us from our unifying humanity, leading us to so much discrimination and suffering. These masks disguise us from our true God-given nakedness – the Divine that is alive within each of us that encompasses our strengths, gifts, weakness and limitations – our authentic selves.

Being stripped of these masks of our false selves can often leave us feeling vulnerable like the bare branches of winter trees, but embracing that bareness allows us to discover new aspects of our true identity as God’s children.

When a colleague shared how grateful she was for the bare winter trees, I was taken aback. As a native from the lush Pacific NW, one of the hardest adjustments for me in moving to the East Cost was how bleak and depressing trees looked to me during the winter months. I was used to being blessed by having green trees all year-round in Portland.

My colleague continued that she was not only grateful for the winter trees, but she also was intentionally bringing that imagery into her daily prayer and spiritual reflection time. Huh? This really challenged me to look at winter differently!

How has my categorization of beauty been so skewed? Had I been missing a different aspect of God’s beauty as I impatiently counted down the days to spring or compared everything to Oregon’s beauty?

And more importantly how is the imagery of barren trees a metaphor for my own life?

After much reflection, the answer was quite clear and ironically “my winter” started last autumn, and like the falling leaves, the aspects of my identity and character that I wanted to cling onto, kept falling.

As I struggled through months of being injured, I resisted having to let go of my dream of running my first marathon and begrudgingly accepted that my identity as an active adventurer was temporarily stripped from me. I was left feeling stark naked as the winter trees with nothing to protect me. I had no way of hiding from my limitations, which included not only my lack of mobility from the injury, but also my stubbornness to be able to receive help from others, my impatience with my recovery and my lack of self-compassion as day after day I was hit with a flood of different emotions.

These limitations left me bare and shivering. Like the winter trees, I was being weathered and withered by the elements and, unfortunately, my roots were not as strong as the trees’. Thankfully, though, I had so many incredible loved ones and kind-hearted friends and colleagues who I could lean on to keep me upright and strong, and made sure I was receiving God’s warmth and sunshine.

I continued to resist my winter, however, wishing I was like an evergreen, and could hide under a warm and secure blanket of green pines. I resisted embracing the beauty God was trying to reveal to me in my vulnerable, bare, naked self.

I cannot say I have truly seen what God had wanted me to discover during this winter of mine, and in some ways I feel like I’m still experiencing it, but I know it is an on-going process and there are moments when the glistening of the winter sun shines softly in my heart.

By gazing at the bare winter trees, I find myself in awe about the beauty I have discovered in the texture and color of their trunks and intricate designs created from the web of stark, profound branches. These discoveries give me hope to continue unveiling and revealing the beauty of my own authentic self, stripped of the masks of my false self and its false sense of security.  I am excited and grateful for the moments I am able to gaze in deep awe at myself with Christ’s light brightly glistening and reminding me of my inherent God-given goodness.

Reflection Question: Before embracing the beauty of the blossoming spring upon us, take some time to reflect on a period of “winter” in your own life. How was God trying to reveal inner beauty to you during that time? What discoveries did you have regarding the masks you needed to strip away in order to embrace your authentic self with all your strengths and limitations? Are you able to gaze upon yourself in deep awe and see the Divine within you?

Former Programs Manager Emily Norton has worked at various local, national, and international NGOs, all of which shared her goal of serving marginalized populations and promoting social justice. Latin America holds a special spot in Emily’s heart, and she has studied and served in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, and Ecuador. Her time on mission living simply in an intentional community, focused on ministry of presence, and living in solidarity with the poor was transformational for her. Emily was a wonderful guide and advocate for Franciscan Mission Service lay missioners through the application process, formation, overseas service, and re-entry. Emily is a proud native of Portland, Oregon, and a proud Bucknellian (i.e. she graduated from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA), who loves learning about different cultures, exploring new places, being active and going on spontaneous adventures.