Cold Spell

I shiver. It’s only a mile to the barn, but the temperature has been dropping all day. I check the thermometer. Fourteen degrees. My coat, hat, and gloves feel invisible. So does my long underwear. The pond has completely frozen over. Only the neighbor’s sheep, standing out of the wind, noses buried in their hay, seem oblivious to the cold.

I make a beeline for the truck. The steering wheel is like ice; even with gloves on, it all but grabs my fingers. But there’s no use starting the heater. It would only blow cold air.

If possible, the barn is even colder. I fumble for the one electric light switch just above the stairs. "He sent darkness, and made it dark," says the voice in my head. Then I find the light. "What you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops," the voice murmurs as I go down to feed the calves. I push the voice aside and start filling buckets.

Even underground, it’s so cold my breath condenses into clouds. The bottoms of bank barns, banked into the Earth on one side, have always struck me as holy places, places of refuge. My breath prayer of many years rises up in me as I pour sweet feed the length of a trough. "Lord Christ, be my center, my life," I breathe. "Lord Christ, be my center, my life." Wind rattles the barn roof. "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Uggh.

Time to feed the cows. Despite the round bale in the barnyard, they’re already waiting, looking up and jostling for a place at the trough as soon as the first door starts to open. I stretch to toss alfalfa, like bread from heaven, out the open doors into the empty racks below. "The eyes of all wait upon you and thou givest them their meat in due season," I think. Just as suddenly, I recall the drought a few years ago when there was no hay. Turning out the light, I slide the huge doors shut on the memory.
The cold is still there, waiting. Without the shelter of the barn, it takes my breath away. "Okay, God," I say, "I know you’re here." I don’t recognize that my words are a challenge. Or demanding. But the wind carries them away almost before they’re spoken. And there’s no answer, only the cold.

Bouncing over the frozen ruts, I look back at the barn sitting solidly in the growing darkness. But even that comfort is whirled away. "Fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you." It takes a long time to warm up once I get home.

After supper, my hands in warm dishwater, the house a cozy 70 degrees, I’m reluctant to think back over the afternoon and evening. The woodstove in the living room has pushed the cold back to within an inch of the walls, and it’s easy to pretend winter’s not there.

But somehow the Spirit has penetrated my defenses. God’s words, words that strike me as cold and hard, confront me. Like the cold seeping through my gloves and boots when I go out for the night’s wood, I can’t ignore them. Out on the farm, I can’t push the cold away. In church and at meeting, in the morning quiet time a few feet from the woodstove, I can disregard it. But oh God, what does that choice cost me?

Carl Jung believed the church crystallized our historical experience of God into dogma and ritual to insulate us from living the experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of the risen Christ, like I had in the barn. I confess that most of the time I want insulation. I want my life climate-controlled. I don’t want to be cold or exposed to the cold dishonesty in me. I want God climate-controlled too. I want to ignore hard things in the Gospels and focus on a God who is comfort, warmth, and light.

But things don’t always square with my spring or summer version of you, God. Job doesn’t. Neither do so many psalms. Or the life-changing demands that accompany Jesus’ promises. Neither does reality. Like Job, there are times I have hard questions. Questions about cancer, birth defects, and the deepest distortions in human nature. Questions about my own losses, brokenness, and destructiveness. At heart, it’s always the same question: "Where are you, God?"

But I’d rather argue than think about it. "Who wants a cold God?" I ask as I get ready for bed. "Who wants a winter God who asks hard things?" Then right after I turn out the light, I glance out at the trees. Wind still roars through bare branches, slamming waves of cold against the house. I remember it is the frost, the cold, the frozen ground that keeps me and all growing things safe, that insulates and protects me from the deadly warmth of arrogance and complacency.

I repent. Climbing in bed, I pray, "Oh God, your cold is part of our reality. I don’t understand it, but pretend it isn’t here, and I pretend this part of you right out of my life."

I wake up about 2:00 a.m. and I listen to the furnace pumping hot water from the basement to cast iron radiators in every room of the house. The alarm clock counts the minutes—2:10, 2:17, 2:25, 2:30—but I can’t decode the message.

About quarter ’til three, I give in. My feet find my slippers where I’d tucked them under the radiator. I pad downstairs in the dark, enjoying their warmth on my toes. The stove has already burned halfway down, and I work two more big chunks of wood in the small side door. A few live coals spill out. I clean them up and, wide awake, reach for my monastic diurnal and find the office for Lauds.

"O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord. O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord. O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord. O ye Nights and Days, bless ye the Lord. O ye Light and Darkness, bless ye the Lord. . . . "

But it is not enough. It is not enough to realize that the cold of winter, the cold of life, are also part of God’s reign, God’s salvation, and that they praise God.

I take a deep breath. Then another. "Okay," I think, "here goes." I step into the abyss of faith; out past logic, theology, and my deepest need, desire, and efforts to stay warm and safe and comforted; out into what looks like an abyss because I can’t see, feel, touch, taste, or more than barely believe in God in that darkness.

"Thank you, God," I say. "Bless you for what I see but don’t understand. For what hurts. For all I’ve experienced and will experience. Help me to let you, cold or warm, comforting or frozen, into every room of my heart."

I feel the quiet that precedes peace. But I sense that I still haven’t gone far enough. Even this isn’t honest enough. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the last thing I thought I’d say is torn out of me. "Thank you for the destruction, God."

The blessing stops me in my tracks. How can that be? Yet the thought feels so right it takes my breath away—that this is the yes, the cold, wind-driven yes being asked of me. But how can that be? I ponder in the darkness.

The woodstove goes from flames to coals again and I continue to sit. Finally I reach for my journal. I don’t even notice the room getting colder.

© 2003 Julie Gochenour

Julie Gochenour

Julie Gochenour, a member of Valley Meeting in Dayton, Virginia, is a former editor of the magazines Virginia Farmer, Southern Dairy, and Cooperative Farmer, and the former co-editor of "Shenandoah Seasons," a culinary newsletter. She is currently working on a Master of Art in Religion degree at Eastern Mennonite University. She also is a news editor for Friends Journal. This article was originally published in DreamSeeker Magazine, Winter 2002 issue;; reprinted with permission.