The masterful Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Winter Light (1963) proves to be timelier than ever. With all the shifts and upheaval in the world around us, this winter brings with it its challenges to our hearts and minds. The frigid frozen setting of Winter Light and the clergyman’s quest for peace at the heart of Bergman’s film aren’t too far removed from where many of us may find ourselves . The film’s images of a congregation gathering, in spite of the extremities of the winter Mother Nature has wrought, reflect our own need to persevere even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Spiritual crisis is at the heart of Winter Light. The action of the film takes place on a single Sunday. As the “frozen chosen” gather, Pastor Thomas Eriksson faces a near-empty church. As he lifts up the liturgy of Holy Communion, written on his face is fear and discouragement. His inability to recognize his own depression disconnects him from those in his congregation who suffer the same.
His “at arms length” approach with them keeps him “at arms length” from his own struggles. His sadness is contagious. Thomas is frozen by his own pride. The fear of naming what he suffers is what must be overcome so that the light can bring healing and wholeness to his winter souls. And this is no less true for us.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is now recognized by the medical community as a form of depression. Shorter daylight hours and uncertain weather patterns do affect our dispositions. Winter’s palette of grays and reduced colors are conducive to melancholy. Many find themselves blue after the culmination of December’s celebrations.
Harvard Medical School’s pioneering research indicates 20 percent of our population suffers from the winter blues. Indicators cited by Harvard are:
One feels like sleeping all the time or struggles with getting a good night’s sleep.
One is constantly tired feeling and finds themselves challenged carrying out daily tasks.
One’s appetite may change, with a desire increasing for sugary and starchy foods.
One gains weight.
One feels sad, guilty and down on one’s self.
One feels hopeless.
One is often irritable.
One avoids activities they often enjoy.
One feels stressed and tense.
One loses interest in closeness to family and friends.
The recommendations to combat seasonal depression are:
To get as much natural sunlight as possible – it is free!
Exercise regularly – it can be as effective as medication.
Reach out to your family and friends and seek their support.
Eat the right diet – fresh fruits and vegetables and not heavy carbs and sugary foods. Foods rich in certain omega 3 fats such as fish, walnuts and soybeans can improve your mood.
Take time for sabbath and recreation. Embrace activities that bring you joy. Meditation and prayer are renewing.
As clergy, we would do well to recognize these symptoms in ourselves and our congregations. Our own wellness and that of those we serve depends on it. It is certain that Christ himself struggled against doubt and fear, even as he names it in the night-chilled shadows of Gethsemane. His faith and our own is best reaffirmed in authenticity and honesty. Only then can the light reach us in the winter of our souls.
The Rev. Bernard Mason is pastor of Mann-Mize Memorial United Methodist Church and chaplain for Heartland Hospice.