Sunday, November 06, 2011

Column: Cold and Chill, Bless the Lord

Dean Brackley, S.J. died recently, my director shared with me a short excerpt from "Call to Discernment in Troubled Times" when I made the Exercises. It struck such a chord that when I returned home, it was one of the first books I read. I heard Jane Hirshfield read "A Cedary Fragrance" a couple of weeks ago at a conference where we were both speaking.

As warm as the light looks in the photo, you could see your breath!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 October 2011.

Cold and chill, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Daniel 3:67

As the gong in the courtyard rang to summon stragglers to morning services, the thermometer in the first floor corridor read 10 C, which made it feel chillier than the 50 F it was. I wrapped my shawl more securely around my shoulders and hoped the dining room tucked deep inside the walls would be a shade warmer.

A dozen of my students and I were staying in a Buddhist monastery tucked into a half-mile high mountain valley south of Osaka. Shojoshin-in was founded almost 1200 years ago, so the lack of central heating is hardly surprising, but after Kyoto’s heat, my students shivered despite their layers, and the monks kindly conjured space heaters to take the chill off the long dormer in which they slept.

Trying not to be envious of the monk’s robes, I dug my faithful “Chemistry Chick” sweatshirt — which has kept me warm through many chilly nights of prayer — out of my bag and elected to go without heat. Cold and chill, could I bless the Lord?

Poet Jane Hirshfield spent many years in a similar unheated monastery, washing her face each morning in the stingingly cold water that was all the taps provided. In her poem, “A Cedary Fragrance”, she writes that she keeps to the practice still: “Not for discipline…but to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola pushes us to think about our desires for comfort and wealth. Do our preferences for warmth, for security, come between us and God? Can we greet with equanimity what comes, wanted or not, comfortable or not? Would we “want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches”?

Most of the time, I have the luxury to not think about heat. Programmable thermostats and automatic hot water heaters keep me from shivering in the mornings. In Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, Dean Brackley, S.J. notes that this sort of insulated life, while it can free us to pursue great goods, has its risks. When we don’t have to struggle with hunger, disease, violence — or the cold — it can “induce in us a chronic low-grade confusion about what is really important in life.” Life and love.

Church father, Origen suggested in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew that our small daily practices of asceticism and denial accumulate, that with them we weave a cloak for a cold and shivering Christ. They teach us where to look for Christ. In those who hunger, who thirst, who are cold, who are poor. They sharpen our awareness of need around us, opening us in Christ to a generosity of heart.

I struggled off and on with the cold during our stay, aware that while this small frisson of discomfort was a choice for me, for most of the world, it is not. Last Sunday, as Morning Prayer’s lines of praise tumbled off the page — Cold and chill, bless the Lord — I wondered again if I could bless the Lord if cold and chill were imposed, not elected. I’m still practicing making the unwanted, wanted.

Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. — Karl Rahner, S.J. In “God of My Daily Routine”


  1. I feel an invitation through this... thank you.

  2. You are welcome, Fran!

  3. I really loved this one.