Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This week’s collect contains one of my favorite phrases in the Prayer Book — a “quiet mind.” I love that description. My mind is loud with worries, restlessness, and self-preoccupation. A “quiet mind” — that’s what I need.
In addition to the beautiful collect, this twenty-first week of Trinity also contained our first snow and record-breaking cold temperatures. I never used to dread winter, but young children and the seemingly perpetual sickness (and thus sleep deprivation) tempts me nowadays to deem the whole season as sinister. In these dark moods, I feel the icy creep of hopelessness. It makes me think of Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “The Snow Man:”
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
In this poem, Stevens warns that winter is a peculiarly tough season to take objectively. It’s easy to project inward misery and see it all personified in the outward world. So, it would seem, the “mind of winter” is a good thing — a detached stance that can bear witness to the crystalline, bitter beauty for what it is.
While I love this poem, setting it alongside the collect of the week presents a choice for me: between a “mind of winter” and a “quiet mind.” While a certain stillness may make these two states seem similar, to my thinking, one is of ice and the other is of peace.
For me, a “mind of winter” means a stoic, joyless resignation. “To be cold for a long time” looks like taking the fever of today and extending it through February, resolving to grit my teeth and bear it. Instead of receiving each day as it comes, with its particular peace and pardon, I keep a cold steeliness that can’t soften to notice my children’s thrill at a snow-covered morning and their comfort in being held for this hour’s misery. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
On the other hand, to cultivate a “quiet mind” means repentance. I need constant pardon from my daily sins — especially, the sin of refusing to see God’s providence in this day, his grace for this sickness, his joy in this hour of my children’s delight.
I also remember from the collect that the way of peace is the way of service. A “quiet mind” isn’t always looking inward — constantly rummaging around in my discontentment. If that’s what I’m looking for, as the poem attests, it is too easy to find misery within and misery without. Instead, a quiet mind seeks possibilities to serve. It keeps strength and clarity by actively finding ways to love God and the people around me. The “Snow Man” is on his own. When I pray this collect, along with God’s “faithful people,” I am reminded that I am never on my own.
At the end of the day, the struggle is to emerge from my self-centeredness. And in a way, that’s the challenge of both the Snow Man’s “mind of winter” and the collect’s “quiet mind.” The ways that I do this are so mundane, but always surprise me at their consistent grace. I sing hymns or I turn on beautiful music. I remember the living words of Scripture, and read poetry and literature. I seek community in the church (with intentional recklessness toward whether or not my kids will be sick two days later). I take walks outside, even when it’s freezing. I still my loud and busy mind to attend to my children — to their needs of this hour (and also their delight when the snow is ice cream and icicles are lollipops and the whole world is storybook). And beyond that, I take comfort in prayer, specifically, the daily office. It keeps me from making prayer an exegesis of my emotions — bringing me out of myself, into pardon and peace.
The “mind of winter” shakes off the preoccupations of self to see the “nothing that is there.” But the “quiet mind” shakes off the preoccupations of self in order to see the glory that is always there, even in the winter.