Chapel Talk

January 8, 2009
Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a poem for winter, by the American poet Wallace Stevens:

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.

Like so many of Stevens’ poems, this one is about the extent to which what we see in our surroundings is actually inherent in those surroundings versus how much of what we perceive we actually create ourselves through an act of imagination that is part of the way we see.  What would it be like, if you stood amidst pine trees, their boughs crusted with snow, junipers “shagged with ice,” and spruces glittering in the January sun, or heard the wind blowing through bare tree branches, and felt nothing, never associating those sights and sounds with, for example, some kind of misery or hardship or with anything else? If your sense of your surroundings were so bereft of meaning you would be like the snowman, “nothing himself.” You would have what Stevens called a “mind of winter,” that, purely, saw nothing. The images before you would be just images. Ungraced by any imaginative spark, they would constitute, in effect, nothing. The snowman in Stevens’ poem has a “mind of winter,” but who wants to be that snowman?

But there’s another sense in which it might be refreshing to have a “mind of winter”: namely, to be able to put aside distractions, to slow the stream of inputs, to silence the noise — in short, to appreciate the opportunities afforded by Interim at St. Olaf College. I like to think of Interim as the contemplative period in our academic calendar at St. Olaf. What makes it so? For one thing, our numbers are reduced. Some 677 St. Olaf students are enrolled in off-campus Interims or programs this month, and if you add in those students doing independent study or internships — or whatever — elsewhere, that number grows to 789, with a corresponding complement of faculty and staff gone with them. As the size of our community contracts, though, its intimacy seems to expand, especially since those of us who have hunkered down for January in this preposterous climate are more likely than usual to be cloistered together by the indoor attractions of heat and light and hot coffee.

Then there’s the intellectual focus of Interim. January provides students and faculty the opportunity to direct their full attention towards a singular topic, whether it be “Globalization and Poverty” or the “Civil Rights Revolution” or “Personal Finance” or “Kant’s Moral Theory” or “Psychophysiology” or any of the other enticing Interim course offerings, and to regard that topic steadily. This is a good thing. Certainly, breadth of exposure to a broad range of disciplines and methodologies is central to a four-year liberal arts education, but a good liberal arts education also includes the experience of focusing intently on a particular area of inquiry. That’s why we require students to complete not only general education requirements but also at least one major, and Interim provides the opportunity for that sustained inquiry into one topic. The singular focus of Interim on one topic, rather than the multi-tasking required by a four (or more) -course schedule during the long semesters, provides the opportunity, if we seize it, to think long and deeply about one thing. In a world of sound bites and megabytes, Interim is about sustained thought.

Interim also provides our community of faith the opportunity for unitary focus on the spiritual life, and the reading for today points us towards a Biblical notion of a “mind of winter.” This is the familiar story of Martha and Mary. Jesus enters a village where he is welcomed by two sisters, Martha and Mary. You can imagine the scene. You’re the sister named Martha. It’s your house. You have company. Your guest is distinguished. You want your home to be welcoming, and you want your hospitality to reflect your appreciation of your guest. There may be an element of pride in your preparations, as well. So, naturally, you go to some lengths to have the house clean and bright, you prepare a delicious meal, probably something that requires more than minimal preparation and, as a result, more than a little effort. I have always sympathized with Martha. At our house, I would be Martha—fretting about whether the table looked good, whether there was enough food, whether the meal would be at the same time simple in appearance and underneath that simplicity sufficiently complex in preparation to reflect the sophistication of the cook. And as I prepared it I would constantly be reminding everyone in the kitchen — and I am mocked in my family for this trait—that if you clean up as you go along there won’t be as much to clean up at the end. When we have guests, I am the one who goes out to the kitchen and begins cleaning up before our guests have left. And I am sorry to report that on more than one occasion I may have suggested to someone in the family, in a certain tone, that they could spend more time helping me in the kitchen. As a matter of fact we have guests—old and dear friends with discerning palates — coming for dinner this very weekend, and I am already far deeper than I should be into the internal debate about what to serve and how to present the meal.

But this is not the behavior that our reading for today endorses, nor is it exemplary of a “mind of winter” in its best sense, nor is it the frame of mind encouraged by Interim. Luke describes Martha as “distracted by her many tasks.” Martha has not narrowed the stream of her worries, her perception of her duties, her focus. On the contrary, distracted by her guests, the meal to prepare, other household tasks, she imposes upon the occasion an array of anxieties and energies that transform it from the amazing opportunity she has to be in the presence of the divine to a cacophony of contingencies that stand between her and God. Jesus recognizes this. When she says to him “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” he replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part . . . .”

“Worried and distracted.” That phrase describes many of us most of the time. Perhaps in today’s world that is the way it has to be, but I’m not willing to accept that, nor should you. Interim offers us the perfect opportunity to push back against worries and distractions and, like Mary, to choose the better part. That means taking advantage of the slower pace of Interim and of the increased intimacy of our community to be quiet, to be reflective, to regard steadily not only the academic subject of our Interim course but also our spiritual life. It means to listen, to read, to talk with friends, and to come to daily chapel. The Interim schedule, the rhythms of the community, and the Minnesota climate conspire to impose a kind of quietude upon St. Olaf.  College in January. But it needn’t be the quietude imagined in the first stanza of our opening hymn today, penned by the 19th century British poet Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter
Long ago.

In that image of winter everything is locked down, frozen in place, inert. There is no life. It’s the winter of Wallace Stevens’ snowman. Rather, it lies within our power, like Mary in today’s reading, to choose the better part of winter, using the quietude that Interim affords us to focus our attention on what matters most, and to use self-examination, reflection, discourse and worship to deepen our understanding of ourselves, to strengthen our bonds as a community, and to bring ourselves closer to God.


David R. Anderson ’74