When I was younger, say in my teens and early twenties, May was my favorite month. I grew up in Pennsylvania and springtime was green shoots and chirpy birds and people who were naturally more cheerful because they didn’t have to shovel snow anymore. I liked October, but mainly for the candy corn and the costumes.
Now that I’m older and maybe wiser May and October have switched places in my favorites list. October is golden glow. May is buttery yellow. October is realistic. May is false hopes that spring will last forever. October is closer to death and so, it is a spiritual opportunity for us to be more in touch with life.
When I drive down my street I see the colorful leaves on the trees as a backdrop to a home that has pretend graves in the front yard that say Rest in Peace (RIP) and plastic skeletons hung from light posts on either side of the front door. The beauty of October and the reminder of death. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Our culture is certainly not comfortable with it.
The Order for the Burial of the Dead from The Book of Common Prayer states the way things are plainly but eloquently. “In the midst of life, we are in death. Earth to earth. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. “
Elementary school science teachers state the way things are scientifically. I searched “Why do leaves change colors?” and several sites for teachers of young children popped up, complete with cartoons and explanations even I sort of understood.
“Each bud on a tree is the beginning of a new leaf. The sun warms the bud and the new leaf begins to grow. As the leaf grows it starts to make its own food. Each lead is like a tiny food factory. The leaf uses sunlight, things in the air, water and a green matter called chlorophyll. The green chlorophyll covers up the other colors of the leaf. It covers up the other colors so we can see only green leaves. When fall begins, the leaf starts to die. There is less sunlight because the days are shorter. The leaf no longer makes food. When the leaf begins to die, the leaf no longer makes food. The chlorophyll breaks down and the green color begins to disappear. Then all the hidden colors- the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns can now be seen!” http://www.tooter4kids.com/autumn/why_do_leaves_change_color.htm
I’m not naïve enough to seek to romanticize death, because death is often brutal and painful. Nor am I interested in making an allegory out of autumn leaves, (when we get older, we stop producing food?) I’m just drawn to autumn and its multicolored autumn leaves as a metaphor for the opportunity October offers us. October invites us to realize that the presence of death in the midst of life can make the beauties of life more vivid to us. I’ve always taken this to be the gift of the book of Ecclesiastes, that life is precious and precarious and needs to be appreciated moment by moment.
My Dad died of liver cancer in 2002. He had a wicked sense of humor and a wealth of wise sayings he attributed to famous people, but that we later found out he had invented himself! Whenever something negative happened to my Dad, he would say, “This is a very well disguised blessing,” or “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you asked for.” Nobody asks for death. And pain and loss are not just superficial disguises. They are painful realities. I attend a number of gatherings of various groups each week: faculty meetings, worship services, committee meetings, and class sessions. In each one, people gather who are in the midst of death, facing family and personal crises of varying kinds: an adult child struggling to find his path in life, a spouse just diagnosed with a chronic illness, an impending surgery, a struggle to find meaning and purpose in retirement, or a painful custody battle.
The spiritual message of October is that, within each dying leaf lies the hidden reality of life. I believe the presence of death in the midst of life is the best disguised blessing there is. The experience of life, God’s sustaining, eternal presence, is what we get when we don’t get what we asked for- good luck, good health, and good fortune this side of the grave.
I have a friend whose mother is very ill, at the point of death. He was just returning from a weekend visit with her. “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother,” I said to him. His reply: “There are worse things than dying.” I would never have opened our conversation with that line. But he’s right. I don’t know exactly what he meant, but I know he’s right.
Maybe he meant, “We have the promise of resurrection and eternal life in the presence of God. There are a lot of things worse than that!”
Maybe he meant “The suffering she has been enduring is worse than death, which would be a relief at this point.”
Maybe he meant, “Dying is a slight, momentary affliction that is a prelude for the life to come.”
Maybe he meant, “We have the promise of resurrection and eternal life in the presence of God. There are a lot of things worse than that! And that promise begins now, it doesn’t have to wait for the next life.”
Whatever he meant, he’s right. He understands the beauty and promise of October.
Prayer for Autumn Days
(Joyce Rupp, OSM; Servants of Mary)
God of the seasons, there is a time for everything; there is a time for dying and a time for rising. We need courage to enter into the transformation process.
God of autumn, the trees are saying goodbye to their green, letting go of what has been. We, too, have our moments of surrender, with all their insecurity and risk. Help us to let go when we need to do so.
God of fallen leaves lying in colored patterns on the ground, our lives have their own patterns. As we see the patterns of our own growth, may we learn from them.
God of misty days and harvest moon nights, there is always the dimension of mystery and wonder in our lives. We always need to recognize your power-filled presence. May we gain strength from this.
God of harvest wagons and fields of ripened grain, many gifts of growth lie within the season of our surrender. We must wait for harvest in faith and hope. Grant us patience when we do not see the blessings.
God of geese going south for another season, your wisdom enables us to know what needs to be left behind and what needs to be carried into the future. We yearn for insight and vision.
God of flowers touched with frost and windows wearing white designs, may your love keep our hearts from growing cold in the empty seasons.
God of life, you believe in us, you enrich us, you entrust us with the freedom to choose life. For all this, we are grateful.