Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Spirituality of a Blizzard

- snow covered mountains -

The news media is flooded today with reports about the big blizzard hitting the East coast of the United States – some are calling it the storm of the century. One headline in this morning’s paper read: Heavy Snows Bring East Coast to a Standstill.

At first blush it might appear that such a powerful, debilitating storm would be very dangerous, even ominous for the people who live in that part of the country; but I have lived through several similar major blizzards and have discovered that they have been opportunities to grow in wisdom, to experience tenderness and practice compassion. A blizzard reduces everything to a standstill and teaches an important spiritual lesson.

When I saw the images of the storm of the century on the East coast, I immediately conjured up vivid memories of the time I was living back in Buffalo, New York. The year was 1977 and the city was hit with almost seven feet of snow. The storm did indeed “reduce everything to a standstill.” Some people’s entire homes were covered over by the drifting snow and no one even thought about getting into a car to drive (for one thing you couldn’t even find your car under the mounds of accumulated snow). On top of all that, most of the city was without power.

In the blizzard of 1977 all we could do was “hunker down” and surrender to our circumstances. All events were cancelled and all we could do was sit with one another in the warmth of a fireplace. We cooked meals and had many conversations in candle-lit rooms as we waited for the storm to end. It was a time when neighbors were checking on other neighbors to be sure everyone was safe and warm. It was a time for spontaneous gatherings of people who lived next door to one another. It was a tender time that brought out the best in us, and as I look back on it now, that blizzard actually taught me a great deal about what is at the core of the spiritual journey.

The renowned Taoist, Lao Tzu, taught his disciples:

Become totally empty.
Quiet the restlessness of the mind.
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.

I think this is precisely the spiritual lesson we all learned in that blizzard long ago - it presented us with an opportunity to become empty, an occasion for standing still and doing nothing, to sit quietly together with uncluttered minds and open hearts, surrendering to life as it unfolded; and from that emptiness, tenderness bubbled up and compassion was practiced.

Obviously we don’t get blizzards out here in the desert where I now live. The mountains are covered in snow but here on the desert floor it’s almost springtime and next week it’s supposed to get up into the 80’s. Yet, interestingly enough, the lesson the baking-hot desert wilderness teaches is a lesson in “wintery spirituality.” One commentary puts it this way:

The desert is not a place of comfort.
It is a place of ‘wintery spirituality’ with its shrill cry of absence,
contrasting with a ‘summery spirituality’ of
easy exuberance and glib certainty.
The desert experience is a ‘wintery phenomenon’
more given to be emptied than filled – lean in its imagery.
Yet no love is greater than desert love.

As I look at today’s pictures of the storm of the century reducing the East Coast to a standstill, it strikes me that we can all learn an important spiritual lesson from that wintery blizzard. No matter where you live, be empty, be still, be present for and with one another, and only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.

No love is greater than desert love.


  1. Paul, you brought back old memories for me of the blizzard of '77 and reminded me to appreciate the sunshine we are enjoying now at a time when so many are in blizzards of their own. And that is true physically and spiritually.

    1. Living through that blizzard was also a great spiritual experience for me --I love the sunshine but in some ways I miss the big blizzards.

  2. Dear Paul,
    Thank you for your essay. I am here in New York City for the Trinity Institute, which has just ended, early because of the blizzard. Back here now in my hotel room, I was feeling empty and a little lonely, when I read your reflections. I realize that now is the time to let the Spirit fill this emptiness with God's Presence and this loneliness with God's companionship. Keep sharing the spiritual wisdom of the desert.
    In Christ,

  3. Your comments are a blessing to me, my friend. Peace be with you.

  4. This struck a chord with me in a parallel way. I recently noticed that when I took care of and honoured strong emotions and feelings, their noise lessened, my mind calmed and this revealed qualities like humour, empathy, compassion and love. It was all there, but covered over. It really echoed your words of 'an unfolding from the emptiness'. Thanks xx