Johnston: Holding off nature

As an undergraduate, I remember being rather proud that Yale did not have snow days. Ensconced with suitemates, I could dutifully gripe that the annual dusting failed to shutter class. But leaving Saybrook, whether watching otherworldly white or wading through wintry wet, joy filled my distending heart: nature would not prevent the purpose of my university.

These days, I live on the grounds of Christ Church (at the corner of Broadway and Elm) and, as they say, a smidgeon of separation (if only 100 yards) portends perspective. In addition to Church duties, I work at an after-school program up Dixwell, whose schedule has been boggled by the recent precipitation. The school lacks the resources to hire shoveling crews, and our environs lack the residential density that simplifies transportation. Its teachers will not walk from Hamden, and they don’t really have offices in which to sleep. It occupies a less rarefied air, though the accumulation of snow seems to be about the same.

With my snow days, I have had more time to pray. Christ Church, you will be interested to learn, continues to hold Morning Prayer and daily Eucharist services through the inclement weather (and I’m a member of the shoveling crew). There’s a parable here: we attend to the supernatural, not in lieu of nature, but when nature presses upon us. Our faith is this: when nature presses, the supernatural tends.

There is a caveat, though: by supernatural, I do not mean to conjure ghosts and quantum physics. We tend to think of “nature” as a metaphysical category, and “supernatural” as an alternative ontological realm. But this is a modern distortion; the promise of law has not captured nature’s likeness. Nature is left to us, not as a metaphysic, but as an ethic. And this ethic is not pretty. It is crushing; it is cruel. The supernatural is an ethic foreign to nature. But let us return to Yale.

My alma mater’s meager provision of snow days reflects the station of her students. For what is youth but a naive flight from nature? Compare it to the mid-life crisis, which represents a maddeningly self-conscious flight. Elis are full-flush; New Havenites are old before their time. I’m not suggesting Yale subsidize snow response for the city. But I have learned that nature is more material to the meek. Perhaps the reason the meek will inherit the earth is that they know it better.

There’s an old hymn (#112 in the Episcopal hymnal, for those keeping score) that speaks of snow. Look up “In the bleak midwinter” if you have not heard it before. Some find it treacly, and I don’t disagree, but I must say it is affecting. The first verse paints a stark scene: “frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” The evocation of snow repeats four times, each taking more time, beginning with a quarter note and dragging until the last, a dotted half. “Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow.” Every snowfall seems to weigh more.

The coming weeks may bring more snow. Most classes will not be cancelled, and that is fitting. But as the banks pile and the channels narrow, you’ll feel the weight, too. And then, perhaps, you’ll see the beauty in “Our God.” For though “heaven cannot hold him,” in “the bleak midwinter, a stable-place sufficed.”

Peter Johnston is a 2009 graduate of Saybrook College and a former staff columnist for the News.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    50 years from now the downtown campus will be knee deep in water. When they dug the foundation for the Shubert Theatre in the 1960’s they found sea-shells and sand——-and that un-earthed epoch was a natural one, BEFORE the additional burden of man-made global warming.

    Get your row boats ready. Or perhaps abandon campus and move to West Campus —-ooops, also near the ocean. Buy Quinnipiac campus and move out there.

    For now—enjoy the snow.

  • River Tam

    Ah Peter Johnston. I’ve missed your philosophical ramblings.

  • RexMottram08

    In the Bleak Midwinter…. a favorite of mine…. magnificent…