From A Better Resurrection
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk;
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall — the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94)
THERE was clearly something about winter which spoke to Christina Rossetti’s Christian imagination. Only a few weeks ago, many of us were singing “In the bleak mid-winter”, when “frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”
Rossetti wrote the words for that carol some time around 1872. Fifteen years earlier, the same season informed this personal prayer, which consists of the first two stanzas of three, taken from her poem “A Better Resurrection”.
Rossetti’s beautiful but troubled face is familiar from several Pre-Raphaelite paintings. She modelled for Holman Hunt, Millais, and her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, none of whom depicted her smiling. Christina’s own creative career as a writer was beset by both physical illness and mental-health problems. To her contemporaries, she was prone to “melancholy”. Today, we would call it depression.
In search of a cure, Rossetti spent her winters in lodgings in English coastal towns. It was perhaps the desolate, drear experience of the seaside at this time of year which turned Rossetti inwards, seeking a return to life through the resources of her Anglican faith.
Her prayer here is poetry, and her poetry prayer, in the best tradition of the psalms. Indeed, these lines evoke them, and work like them — if we recognise that the psalms are not just about praise, but give us the words to pray in the times when we have no words.
While the Hebrew psalmist said: “My strength is dried up . . . my tongue cleaveth to my jaws” (Psalm 22), this prayer opens by acknowledging that we begin to pray when we can no longer think, speak, or cry. In such a state, there is numbness and an assumed isolation: the looking left and right to see whether anyone else feels the same, but concluding: “I dwell alone.”
There can follow a related blindness to God. When I am lifting “mine eyes unto the hills” in the manner of Psalm 121, there is no reassurance of knowing from whence cometh my help. A veil of inner darkness seems to hide that horizon over which help “cometh from the Lord”.
Further echoes of psalms of lament may be heard in the repeated refrain “My life is . . .”. In these instances, the similes and metaphors of winter are substitutes for a life “spent with grief” (Psalm 31), or drawing “nigh unto the grave” (Psalm 88). This prayer plumbs equivalent depths, and names much the same doubt, futility, and hopelessness as is acknowledged in the psalter.
And, yet, closing and completing each half of the prayer is a simple, personal pleading to Jesus. The scriptural key to unlock these lines is John 11.25: “Jesus said unto her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” For “quicken” here means give life — after the credal phrase “the quick and the dead”. Rising is, of course, a rising from the tomb.
The power of the accompanying imagery of the rising sap of spring is perhaps fully felt only when we recall the hidden nature of the resurrection itself. The cold stone of Christ’s tomb gave no sign of what was taking place behind it, until it was rolled away. Likewise, we see “no bud nor greenness” in a tree, even as new life rises within.
Unlike Christina Rossetti, I have never suffered from depression. I have only lived around it. I have absorbed the vented anger, wiped the silent tears, and turned a blind eye to the duvet days. In another case, I have also missed the hidden signs, and lost a friend. To me, depression is certainly a winter, no matter when it comes. It chills and darkens and strips bare. It puts life in the deep-freeze, and loved ones feel its cold.
So, for anyone finding himself or herself in such a winter, I would certainly pray this prayer. But I also suspect that it touches other contexts — of mourning, loss, or profound failure. All such experiences, when lived with for an extended time, become a season that we live within: a season that passes, but not easily or quickly.
These are the winters of our lives. And, during such cold times, we need to acknowledge not only that Christ has come in our “bleak mid-winter”, but that we need his quickening and rising within us. We inhabit a testing time between the momentary glow of Christmas and the eventual coming of spring. Our new life remains as hidden as the rising sap. But it surely rises, with him who is the resurrection and the life.
Dr Philip Lockley is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He was formerly a lecturer in Theology at Trinity College, Oxford, and taught modern church history in the university.