There’s a girl I once loved who lived in New England. Through the years I’ve thought of her whenever I’ve heard the Dylan song “Girl from the North Country,” especially the part about wondering whether she remembered me at all and the line about hoping she had a coat so warm to keep her from the howling wind.
I was in New England on New Year’s Day, as it happens, dealing with the howling wind and incredible cold on a mountainside outside of Weston, Vermont, walking across the grounds of the Benedictine priory there, and thinking three things: 1) I’ve never been so goddamned cold in my life; 2) I notice that the goddamned monks aren’t walking around in this weather — they’re in that building over there, all snug around their fireplace while they chant their goddamned Gregorian chant; and 3) There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes.
Here’s a photo of the Weston Priory grounds in winter, looking deceptively calm and peaceful:
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt the urge to seek shelter in a church. So wasn’t it ironic — and practical — that I found myself praying….Oh, my God, please let the door of that chapel or at least the visitor’s center be unlocked, even through it’s New Year’s Day, and, God, if the door’s unlocked and I manage to get inside, please, God, let there be heat….Amen.
The door was open. There was heat. There was a comfortable sofa. I sat there contently for an hour, thawing out and reading a copy of The Catholic Worker, the legendary newspaper started by social activist Dorothy Day, who was a friend of both my old friend, the great gentle poet Robert Lax, and Lax’s best friend, the great peacemaker Thomas Merton.
At last I got up my courage, put on my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, put on my wool hat and gloves, opened the door, and stepped out into the swirling snow. Three riders were approaching, the wind began to howl, and I found myself thinking that it should be the other way around, that heaven should bathe us in divine warmth and that hell should be, well, as cold as hell, and don’t the winds hit heavy on the borderline between faith and doubt, between past and present, between love and the memory of love.