This is the best time of the year, at least according to my way of thinking. Purely from the perspective of creature-comforts, soft sweaters and flannel shirts come out of their hiding places. The flavors of foods we cook become more robust and flavorful. It is no wonder that one of the symbols of autumn is a cornucopia, a bounty of fruits and vegetables that have ripened and are ready to be eaten. The trees are no longer a uniform green but display vibrant reds and golds and deep purples. One of the best descriptions of autumn was written by Eduard Möricke, a Romantic poet and a German Lutheran pastor, who lived in the 19th century. In his poem Septembermorgen (September Morning) he describes how the world, made autumn-strong (herbstkräftig), flows in warm gold.
My mother, on the other hand, found autumn to be exquisitely sad. She saw the fading sunlight as an omen of death. Gone were the warm, soft evenings of summer. Flowers no longer bloomed in riotous colors. Steeped in the stories of Norwegian winters told to her by her parents, she saw nothing but cold and snow — and impending gloom. She could not wait until the first crocuses popped up, assuring her that the promise of spring was once again a reality.
Both of these perspectives are true. Autumn is a contradiction. Take, for example, the symbolic meaning of the Archangel Michael. In all three of the Abrahamic faiths, Michael is given particular significance. He is seen as the one who is our protector, healer, and fighter against the forces of evil. In Islam, he is responsible the forces of nature. His feast day occurs sometime between September 29 and October 10, depending on the calendar being used; his day is celebrated with foods emblematic of the rich bounty of the harvest. The time during the fall when a period of warm days follows a frost was called Michaelmas Summer in Britain. However, and perhaps in recognition of the shorter days that would soon follow, Michael is also recognized as our protector against darkness.
This is a time for balancing day and night, bounty and scarcity. Joyce Rupp, a Catholic poet, encourages us to welcome both the light and the dark in our lives: “I gratefully acknowledge how darkness has become less of an enemy for me and more of a place of silent nurturance, where the slow, steady gestation for my soul’s growth can occur. Not only is light a welcomed part of my life, but I am also developing a greater understanding of how much I need to befriend my inner darkness.”
Vinita Hampton Wright, an author and practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, finds that autumn can be a good time to undertake a spiritual retreat, whether a few hours or a few days in length. She recommends that the retreat focus on the following:
- Embrace the dying landscape as an inspiration to let go of those things that are no more. Perhaps a relationship has ended, or a hoped-for goal is no longer attainable. Just as the dry leaves fly away, these things can be cast to the wind.
- Use the longer nights to foster more consistent silence and meditation. In the summer there is so much to grab our attention in the long evenings. She recommends journaling or reading or knitting to foster a quiet that can deepen.
- Embrace the brisk air as a way to enliven new thoughts and emotions. We are physical beings and can be re-awakened by the clarity of the sky, the rich colors, the complex aromas, the sound of leaves under our feet. These sensations can spark creativity and help us look at life and faith in new and different ways.
In this time of both bounty and scarcity, of light and darkness, of sound and silence, we also are letting go of the liturgical year. Soon we commemorate All Saints Day and remember those who have died during this past year. A few short weeks thereafter, in the Northern Hemisphere, the Church Year ends in the cold silence of late November. But . . . soon, we will begin anew in Advent as we await, in quiet anticipation, for the breaking of the Light into our world once again.
Dark and light. Endings and beginnings. Warmth and bitter chill. May we embrace the dichotomy of our lives this autumn and use this time to grow in faith, ever thankful to God for this wonderful creation and the gift of Love that sustains us each and every day.
Let us pray...
We thank you, O God, for the gift of the seasons. We particularly give thanks for the autumn, a time in which we can let go of those things that burden our souls and use the quiet to be made strong and search for new ways to welcome you into our hearts.
In the Holy Name of Christ, our Lord, we pray. Amen.