Seasons of the Soul
Autumn: The Season of Paradox
Song for the Salmon (excerpt)
For too many nights now I have not imagined the salmon
threading the dark streams of reflected stars,
nor have I dreamt of his longing
nor the lithe swing of his tail toward dawn . . .
I am ready like the young salmon
to leave his river, blessed with hunger
for a great journey on the drawing tide. ~ David Whyte
The autumn equinox falls on September 23rd this year—a time when the sun rests above the equator, and day and night are divided equally. It heralds a season filled with change, celebrates the harvest, and ushers in the brilliant beauty of death. Autumn is a season of transition, of continual movement.
At the heart of autumn's gifts are these twin energies of relinquishing and harvesting. It is a season of paradox that invites us to consider what we are called to release and surrender, and at the same time it invites us to gather in the harvest, to name and celebrate the fruits of the seeds we planted months ago. In holding these two in tension we are reminded that in our letting go we also find abundance.
In the seas all around me here in my beloved Northwest, the salmon are responding to an ancient and ancestral call. They are returning from the oceans, and making the hard and often battering journey up the rivers, to return to their birthplaces to lay eggs offering the gift of new life. This journey always ends in their own death. It is an amazing mystery as I imagine this deep longing for home the salmon must feel and the ultimate surrender they welcome while also offering a harvest of blessing for the next generation of salmon.
This past summer I traveled with my husband to Sacramento to see his parents. His mother is in the last stages of Alzheimer's and as her mind continues to unravel those of us who love her are left bereft, witnessing the vibrant beauty of a devoted mother slowly disappear. Fall thrusts us into the messiness of life and challenges us not to turn away. The season of autumn calls me to honor the full spectrum of human experience, to not push away the sorrow and grief, to not fill the waiting with distractions. I rest into the unknown, the not-yet knowing when an end will come for my beautiful mother-in-law. I stay present to the great sadness I feel.
As I walk each day, fall offers solace with her unbearable beauty. But some days, the wind gusts through and the trees are stripped bare. I weep at the ache I feel when I consider how everything I love in this world will one day die. The season calls me to let go of false assumptions, wrests my too-small images of God from me as I enter the Mystery of dying and rising. Autumn demands that I release what I think is important to do and returns me to the only thing which matters that I remember—to love and to allow love to sculpt me, even as it breaks my heart.
But equally, this season calls us to the harvest. Seeds planted long ago create a bounty and fullness in our lives. Autumn invites me to remember the places in my life where I had a dream that once felt tiny and has now grown and ripened into fullness. I savor these places where my life feels abundant. I relish the experience of being nourished by dreams into my own growing wholeness.
The poet Rilke writes of autumn: "Command the last fruits to be full; / give them just two more southern days, / urge them on to completion and chase / the last sweetness into the heavy wine." We move toward our own ripening and in that journey we let go of what no longer serves us. Fall urges us on to our own completion and sweetness.
We live in times when it often feels like everything is coming undone. This season reminds us that the journey of relinquishing all we hold dear is also the journey of harvesting. Somehow these two come together year after year. We are invited to rest into its mystery.
What are you releasing that no longer energizes you?
What dreams do you want to harvest this season?
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes in contemplative practice and creative expression and pilgrimages to Ireland, Germany, and Austria. She is the author of eight books on monasticism and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press) and her forthcoming book The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Inner Journey (Spring 2015, Ave Maria Press). Christine lives as a monk in the world in Galway, Ireland with her husband of twenty years.