Midwinter spring is its own season / Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. / When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, / The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, / In windless cold that is the heart’s heat, / Reflecting in a watery mirror /A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. / And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier, / Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year. / Between melting and freezing / The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell / Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time / But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow / Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom / Of snow, a bloom more sudden / Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading, / Not in the scheme of generation. / Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?
I am on pilgrimage. The air is clear, a windless cold. Yet the sun is bright, blazing off snow and ice. My eyes squint as I look around. I left my sunglasses on my dresser. I’m always forgetting my sunglasses. I shield my eyes. Despite a lifetime of prayer and attempted discipleship, the light still burns.
I am on pilgrimage. Something significant may happen today or perhaps tomorrow or the day after … but soon. The bright sun has kindled a thaw. The ground will be a mushy mess by sunset. We are “between melting and freezing / the soul’s sap quivers.” Midwinter spring.
A melting of the heart, liberation from the ice—I cannot demand it from God … but for this I have been praying. No matter the time of year, it is winter. The cold penetrates into the marrow. “Always winter,” Tumnus tells Lucy, “but never Christmas.” I enjoy the freedom to do many things, but I cannot control the weather nor bring life to my soul. Midwinter spring does not happen in time’s covenant. It is a new season belonging to a new calendar.
And so I go on pilgrimage to a holy place—Little Gidding. I know very little about the place. I know that Nicholas Ferrar created a community structured around the Divine Offices. Here God was once present. May he be present yet again.
Suddenly the snow-covered hedgerow blooms with fire and light—the Pentecostal fire.
I want this fire.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,
“Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”
The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him,
“If you will, you can become all flame.”
I am on pilgrimage. May the fire come.
But what is the “Zero summer” of which the poet speaks? Why zero? It’s an odd image. The phrase sounds awkward to my ear, even repellent. Is it the end we seek? Summer is luxuriant life, yet the summer always dies into winter. We cannot hold onto it. We seek a summer that transcends summer—an apophatic summer. We yearn for the unimaginable beatific vision, union with the divine, theosis, glory.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were unexpectedly given to see Jesus in his uncreated light and glory. “His garments became glistening,” the evangelist tells us, “intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). For a few moments they experienced the ecstasy of Zero summer. But then the vision ceased, and reluctantly they resumed their journey with Jesus to the winter of Golgotha.
At the time when T. S. Eliot composed this poem, Britain was at war. The bombs were falling on London—death, desolation, despair. It was the end of the world, as Richard Scutter remarks, because war had made it so; “but every place is the end just as every place is the beginning.”
We make pilgrimage to Little Gidding.