This article was published in the January to April 2018 issue of Rapport magazine.
Michael Mitton reflects on Bible stories which connect with the seasons of the soul
Even in our modern, sophisticated, technological world, our lives are influenced by the changing seasons. As autumn gets underway we notice the darker evenings and cooler temperatures. By the end of November we are starting to feel the chill, and by January there seems to be a good deal more darkness than light in our world. In March we are excited by the spring bulbs and flowers and there is warmth in the sun again. And even in a poor summer we can still celebrate the abundance of the gardens and fields, and savour the long hours of daylight. Our glorious spinning globe, that is our home, tracks its ceaseless way around the blazing sun, and the seasons change.
High summers and dark winters
There is a parallel in the way our souls track their way through the mysterious and wonderful journey of life. The great mix of life experiences that come our way inevitably affects our sense of wellbeing and also our relationship with God. Thus we can know high summers where we feel well and at peace with our world and ourselves and we feel close to God, and there is much to celebrate.
We can know autumnal seasons where some aspect of life that we once knew and cherished is fading from us and our faith feels challenged, even threatened. It can be a season of disturbance, and like the leaves falling to the earth below, we can also feel humbled. Many have experienced dark winters of the soul where painful life experiences such as bereavement, despair or guilt beset us and we are led into an unwanted dark night of the soul. This can be a very vulnerable time for the soul, and yet it is full of possibilities. And we can also experience springtime renewals, where something springs to life in our world, new light emerges and a sense of adventure can arise within us, and our faith is renewed.
In the natural world, the seasons follow a clear pattern of each lasting approximately three months, and one always following on from the other. But in the seasons of the soul it is different. A sudden shock or tragedy can plunge us from bright summer to dark winter, or a piece of wonderful news can speed us from an anxious autumn to a hopeful springtime. And in the soul there is no set time for the seasons. Some last a couple
of days, others may go on for months.
Gifts of God
Just as we learn to live with the seasons of nature, so we have to learn to live with the seasons of the soul. Personally I am one who has always much preferred the warm, sunny days of summer, to the damp, dark days of winter. However, I have learned that even in the dark night of a cold winter, it is possible to find the gifts of God that make it possible to flourish as much in a dark winter as in a high summer. Christian people have not always found it easy to navigate their way through the different seasons. Some naively supposed that once they had found God and entrusted their lives to Jesus, it would be one long summertime festival of the spirit. To suddenly experience a frosty winter day and an apparent sense of the absence of God can be deeply disturbing. It is at such times we need guides to help us. And such guides are there in the pages of Scripture.
Guidance of Scripture
I have worked with the notion of seasons of the soul for many years now, but it is only fairly recently that I have discovered that it is possible to match Bible stories to particular seasons. In so doing we can discover friends who can give us some help. So for example, in the wintery season of bereavement, I found the story of Naomi and Ruth (see the book of Ruth). There were two women who experienced not only the bitter pain of losing much beloved lives, but for a time they also lost their homeland. As I worked my way into this story, I discovered the enchanting character of Ruth, who tenderly cares for the forlorn figure of Naomi. Both women are grieving terribly, but it is Ruth who helped me to see how even in bitter bereavement hope can be found. And that hope rubbed off on Naomi in the end.
Creativity in the desert
And then there are springtime stories of love, creation and adventure. Among them I found Bezalel (Exodus 31.1-11), a rather unsung hero who was one of those who had to plod their way through the dusty desert on the way to the Promised Land. In the midst of that wilderness, through the gift of the Spirit, he discovered a creativity that crafted the most beautiful tabernacle – a blaze of colour, life and worship that transformed that drab desert.
Abundance and healing
There are many wonderful summertime stories of abundance, wealth and celebration. I spent some time with the young wife at that wedding in Cana (John 2:1–11) where a rabbi from Nazareth, whom she possibly hardly knew, touched some very ordinary water and transformed it into a wine that is still being talked about two thousand years on. And I also found autumn stories of vulnerability and loss. I have come to love so much the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:8–15), that important captain, who, like an autumn leaf, was brought down to earth not only by his dreadful leprosy, but also by a rather impolite prophet who gets him to dunk himself in the local river. But I watched the leprous face of that captain as the water washed away his disease. Such humbling led to a wonderful healing.
In my view we have not always approached these stories in the best way. Those of us who are preachers are quick to dive into our commentaries to gather up some fine and impressive theological and spiritual points to pass on to our congregations. Those who feel they are not experts can easily feel they are not properly qualified to understand these Bible narratives. But it seems to me this is not the way Jesus worked with stories. Look at his use of parables. He would take a story and simply lob it into the crowd and then walk on to the next village. If I had been one of his travelling disciples, I can see myself tugging at his robe and saying, ‘Lord these people are not theologians. You will have to explain yourself clearly and make sure they fully understand your point here.’ But no, he would have pulled his sleeve away from me and pressed on because he had an extraordinary trust in the human mind and instinct to come to a true understanding. He trusted the inspiring work of the Holy Spirit to lead people of open hearts into the truth.
Flourishing in every season
God has lobbed all these wonderful stories of the Scriptures into our lives. Our job is not to rush to the experts for advice, but to breathe in Holy Spirit light, and then use our God-blessed gift of imagination to wander into the story and see what we might discover. I very much hope my book, which looks at 28 stories of the Bible, will help many to realise that any of us can step into these stories at any time and discover life-giving treasures that are there to help us to flourish in every season of life.
Michael Mitton works in the areas of spirituality and mission with a particular interest in Fresh Expressions and Pioneer ministry. He has written a number of books including Dreaming of Home (BRF). He is a spiritual director, speaker and group facilitator.
Join Michael and us at Lee Abbey Devon
Individually Guided Retreat
19–23 February (Mon–Fri)
Our team of experienced spiritual directors will accompany you on a silent, guided retreat with a daily one-to-one session for up to an hour. Each day there will be a communion service with a short reflection.
Summer Retreat: Seasoned by Seasons
16–20 July (Mon–Fri)
As we journey through life, we experience seasons of the soul that correspond to the seasons in nature. We know autumns of loss, winters of dark nights, springs of new discoveries, and summers of flourishing. Each season has its gifts. Based on his recent book Seasoned by Seasons (BRF), Michael will imaginatively explore Bible stories that help us to find the gifts of each season.