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“The Heights and the Depths:” Considering the Seasons of Life

Like a cool morning mist, fall is gradually settling on New England. Having been raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it’s a different and enjoyable experience for me to now live in a place that has proper seasons. In New Mexico, summer lingers until about mid-October. The fall leaves are lovely—mostly golden cottonwoods—and the fall temperatures last until almost Christmas. Winter lasts all of two months, if that, and it starts to feel like spring again in February.

Not so for New England. The seasons up here are more evenly matched in length, and they differ distinctly from one another. I’ve been looking forward to another fall, because it’s when New England shines brightest: the light is soft and golden and every tree is on fire with color. I love it. And yet, as we get further into the season, the reality of the oncoming winter looms. Last winter was unusually long, and I’ve heard that we’re in for another rough one this year. Soon it will be time to hunker down, stay close to home, and endure the cold until spring comes again.

Not unlike the seasons of the year, we experience different seasons in life: seasons of joy, excitement, or newness; seasons of sadness, loneliness, or grief; seasons of boredom, aimlessness, or uncertainty. We live in a constantly progressing rhythm, and it varies and fluctuates. Sometimes the seasons bleed gradually into each other, and other times we are jarred unexpectedly from one to the next. And we can’t just have one season perpetually in life: we can’t have joy without other times having loss, or now good fortune without other times struggle. It all goes hand in hand.

In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken writes about how the heights of life cannot be separated from the depths, but it’s worth it to endure trials and pains so we can partake of the joys. Recounting a realization he’d had as a teenager (before he found Christianity, it’s worth noting), he says (referring to himself in the third person):

How did one find joy? In books it seemed to be found in love—a great love—though maybe for the saints there was joy in the love of God. He didn’t aspire to that, though; he didn’t even believe in God. Certainly not! So, if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have, if he could find it, a great love. But in the books again, great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain—if, indeed, they went together. If there were a choice—and he suspected there was—a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.

I’ll learn more as I continue to grow older, but this is starting to ring true for me.

We humans seem obsessed with always being “happy.” We also often improperly tie happiness and goodness to ease, as if something will only truly make us happy or is only worthwhile or genuine if we don’t have to fight for it. This idea is commonly applied to romantic relationships, but it’s easy to mistakenly apply it to religion, too. The thinking seems to go that if we have to force ourselves to love God, even if we only have to do so sometimes, do we really love God? Perhaps we’re just going through the motions and putting on a show of authenticity when our heart isn’t in it.

But whether or not an activity is good and necessary for us is thankfully not determined by our mood. There are plenty of times I’ve been sitting in church or trying to pray and just not feeling it. I must drag myself out of bed and go for a run even when I don’t feel like it, because I’m not going to magically get in shape if I don’t put in the work. So also must I continue the work of cultivating my relationship with God (as two chief examples) even if my heart doesn’t feel fully in it. It seems easy to believe that our hearts dictate our actions—maybe because emotions can be unpredictable, so it implies a lack of control over, and therefore responsibility for, how we behave—but we forget that our actions guide our hearts. Go through the motions if you have to; your heart will catch up.

Until it does, though, we must endure when difficult seasons come, as they do for all of us in time. Last February, we literally had a snowstorm every single week. As we moved through March and then into April the iced-over snow piles lingered and the air was still bitterly cold. I was weary. We all were. But we endured, even if it was harder than it should’ve been. We knew that spring was coming, even if it was coming late.

It’s dangerous to rely so much on particular feelings or states of being: happiness, ease, comfort. If we do, we’ll be tempted to pack it in when we hit a season that doesn’t complete our comfort checklist. I don’t abandon Massachusetts just because it’s cold in the winter. I don’t abandon my husband just because marriage is hard sometimes. I don’t abandon God just because I don’t always have nice feelings about being a Christian.

Let us endure but not despair. It’s not always easy and effortless, and it requires us to struggle and even force ourselves sometimes, but God is doing good work in us. He honors our struggle, and he meets us where we are. And when our souls are in the midst of winter, we ought to stay close to home: go to church, pray, and continue in communion through the Eucharist, fellowship, and intimacy with God and the people who share our life and our faith, our co-laborers, enduring together until the end.

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