In the wildly popular “Game of Thrones” series on HBO, based on the books by George R. R. Martin, each of the powerful families has an epithet that is particularly meaningful to the tribe, referred to as the family’s “words.” The words of House Stark, the lords and kings of the bleak and barren northern regions of the mythical land of Westeros, are “Winter is coming.” It is a constant reminder, especially in the soft warmth and promise of spring, and in the heat and plenty of summer, that the world is changing and harder times always are approaching. Moreover, the ever-present concept that winter is coming gives the northern families a shared sense of purpose; a united motivation to prepare for tomorrow and the lean days ahead.
I find a parallel between the words of House Stark and one element of the Catholic experience. While the world of Westeros is preparing to weather the storms and scarcity of the coming winter, the followers of Christ are on a perpetual journey in the wilderness.
The wilderness is not unlike the winter the Starks warn of. The wilderness is a place that is uncultivated, uninhabited and largely inhospitable to life. Few can survive in the wilderness for an extended period of time and some have perished in the attempt. But along with the desolation of the wilderness, there is also a sense of cleansing, refocusing and renewal that occurs there. In the wilderness, all of the distractions are stripped from us and only the essential aspects of our existence seem important.
While the wilderness is a physical place, for sure, it is also a spiritual dimension; a place where one’s spiritual life is tested and hardened. It’s an environment where all of the nonessential baggage can be discarded on the road and one can continue journeying toward what is most important to one’s existence: the grace and love of Christ.
We take part of our journey into the desert together, as members of the body of Christ that is the Church. Throughout the liturgical year, we travel with Christ and his experiences of the wildernesses of his life. Before Jesus’ public ministry began, Israelites were drawn to the message of the coming of the Messiah. That message was not being broadcast by the rich, famous or powerful elite of society, but by a mere voice crying aloud in the wilderness. (Mk 1:3; Jn 1:23) Jesus himself went to the wilderness to fast and have his resolve tested by the devil. (Mt 7:1-11)
Despite our shared journey as the Church, we individually venture into the wilderness on our own occasionally and have our resolve tested. While the devil does not offer to make me king of the world, he does offer to let me sleep in on a Sunday morning when my newborn daughter has been up all night. Or tells me it is much easier to get through a hard day at the office by telling people what they want to hear, instead of telling the whole truth as my job requires. Or makes it hard sometimes to pick up that Bible at night when I’m just wondering, “What is the point of it all?”
The corollary to the Starks’ words that “winter is coming” is that on the other side of winter is spring and the return of easier times of plenty. On the other side of the wilderness is the fertile and lush spiritual life of God’s grace, in eternal abundance. As so many of Jesus’ trickier parables teach us, God’s grace is not offered by a measure of how much one deserves or needs. God’s grace overfills whatever cup it is poured into. When I’m in the wilderness, it is a comfort to think that the wilderness of suffering and grief and doubt is part of the journey. It is in the wilderness that I cast off the unnecessary encumbrances, making room for God’s grace, so that I may emerge lighter and more focused on the journey itself.
Cody Guarnieri is a criminal defense lawyer with a Hartford law firm and is a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.