Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Love of Bare November Days: Frost's "My November Guest"

November is typically the month people start complaining about the cold. I personally don't feel the need to complain about weather, unless there's a tornado in the vicinity. But there are particular reasons I actually enjoy the "ugliest" month in the year. Mostly they relate to Advent.
The season of Advent, for most of the Catholic Church, starts ten days from now. But for us Eastern Catholics, it's already here. Our "Advent", called Philip's Fast (it begins on the feast of the Apostle Philip), lasts six weeks instead of four. The middle of November is just the time when the soul-stressing noise and empty glister of the "holiday season," begin in earnest. It is just at this time, that Mother Church opens her arms to us, hushes us, and tells us to steady our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Fasting, good works, and re-focused prayer are the main tools she gives us. But even nature itself encourages the ascetic ethos. By mid-November, the blazing autumn colors have withered. The grass is damp and yellowing. The wind begins to have a vicious bite. Beauty has gone, at least until the first real snow. Or has it?
Robert Frost might disagree. Recently while reading his volume of poetry, A Boy's Will, I ran across this short piece which is truly a November gem:
My November Guest
by Robert Frost
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks, and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
At first it seems as if Frost views November like anyone else--a cold, dark, unpleasant, even unnecessary time of year. As we see, his Sorrow persuades him otherwise. But how can we understand this strange love of bare trees and cold fog? Is it a morbid obsession with pessimism and death? I think not. I also think the Church's wisdom can give us insight into Frost's fondness.
The two major fasting seasons of the year, in the Eastern Church, both posses an ethos of what we call "bright sadness". This is in obedience to our Lord's command, "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men" (Mat. 6:16). It is a fused spirit of deep repentance and buoyant hope, which prepares us for the greatest feasts of the Church year.
Bright sadness and Frost's Lady Sorrow are close cousins. In fact, November as a season epitomizes this attitude. The world has been stripped of its outward beauty and warmth, just as we strip ourselves of bodily pleasures. Nature grows stiller, darker, more rigorous, as we strive to keep a more peaceful spirit and a deeper prayer life. For six weeks we humble ourselves, preparing for the coming of Christ, just as November becomes naked, in preparation for the baptism of glittering December snow.
This is the "love of bare November days"--a love of quiet, repentance, and purification. It's not always pleasant--I don't like a November blast breathing down my neck any more than the rest of us--but it is good. A good chill, which reawakens our souls to the task before them: the task of loving God and each other. Ponder that the next time you're tempted to grumble about the forecast.