First Snowfall, A Moment of Grace

George Sotter, "Night Scene with Snow"

George Sotter, “Night Scene with Snow”

Spiritual Sunday

In southern Maryland we’ve just had our first good snow of the year. In my eyes (but not in those of my students) it was ideal: a good four inches but not heavy enough to close down the college. It conjured up for me Mary Oliver’s wonderful “First Snow,” which like much of her work is deeply spiritual, even while not being overtly religious.

For Oliver, the snow flows with “oracular fever,” seeming to convey deep insight. Its “white rhetoric” prompts us to ask existential questions, such as why, how and whence such beauty and what does it mean? Then, in the absolute stillness of the night when the heavens shine with a million candles and “the broad fields smolder with light,” we get our answer.

The answer doesn’t come in words. As is always the case with divine mystery, language comes up short. But Oliver knows that we will get all the answers we need by

walking out now

into the silence and the light

under the trees,

and through the fields.

We step out as though into a church. Here’s the poem:

First Snow

By Mary Oliver

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to
why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning, such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from.  Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain—not a single
answer has been found—
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.


A note on the artist: George Sotter’s painting can be found at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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