In the long cold of the last few weeks, I have withdrawn into a fetal, psychic hibernation, reminiscing about childhood and about other retreats I have made from the weather and the world. This morning, while I was working alone in my attic bindery, listening to the wind and watching the snow, a memory mood from my hermetic high school years at Holy Cross Seminary came back and settled around me.
In my mind, I went back to the seminary crypt under the main chapel, a windowless basement of gray stone, with low ceilings and heavy pillars and pointed arches. It smelled of incense and beeswax. Slab altars lined the walls. The staff of priests, with the students as servers, said daily mass there.
I remembered the sense of complete protection I felt in that place, not only from the northern winter, but from conflicts with peers, hormonal temptations, adolescent ennui. Enveloped in that subterranean chamber and in its ritual, I was the wide-eyed adept. That dim, consecrated cave was the center of my practice, the passageway to the true Path. The holy sacrifice which I attended was the ultimate act. The Latin exchange between server and celebrant was the great dialogue, the secret code, communion with the living and the dead.
Outside the seminary, in the lonely, secular and snow-covered hills above the frozen river, away from sure and scented dogma and hierarchy, there was no salvation. But in the crypt I was safe; I belonged as I have never belonged since. Had I chosen, I could have stayed there forever; I had been born to the elect, and the sacred words I witnessed and abetted could change common bread and wine into God.
Then one year, spring came to me while I prayed, and my devotion thawed, and what had once seemed so frightening and alien in winter flowered and sang. My vestments became too tight. Heaven lost its allure. I no longer wanted to be safe or to belong. The hills were green and gold in the sun, and I longed only for the open river and for the magic of earth.
This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the transition week to Early Spring. In the meantime, only a few days remain to Late Winter, hibernate a little longer before you are captured by the Spring.