There are many things I like about autumn. On top of the list is the beautiful display of colours. Leaves look brilliant in yellow, orange and red. Forests look amazing as they become a kaleidoscope of colours. The colours even take on nuances of their own as clouds cast shadows and the sun changes its position in the sky. The beginning of autumn feels mystical. The shadows are longer and forming ever-darker patterns. Darkness continues its course of pushing out the daylight hours. The air is crispy. Temperatures are cooling and the winds are howling, forewarning of colder days ahead.
In September of last year I drove my sister Gwen from Regina to her home in Hudson Bay. We travelled from the Queen City to Yorkton and then turned north onto Highway 9. This route was familiar. I travelled it many times previous to 1997 when I entered St. Peter’s Abbey to become a Benedictine monk. The scenery brought back memories of yesteryear, though I do not remember enjoying the view as much as on this day.
It was late September and the season of autumn was just beginning. The sun shone through a blue sky and a small congregation of heavy, fluffy clouds welcomed the new time of year. Bright rays drew attention to the beauty of the landscape. The parklands and mixed forests were dressed in the glittering colours of yellow, orange and red. Fields of straw, left from combined wheat and barley crops, looked golden. Swaths formed striking patterns of lines as they awaited their final harvest. Hawks looked majestic as they sat upon bales and power lines. Rural Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches spoke of mystery and the eternal as they displayed their holy cupolas and crosses in the Land of the Living Skies.
When I pointed out the fall colours, Gwen agreed that they were beautiful. She loved the outdoors, but she could not appreciate the moment as much as I did. Gwen was battling cancer. She was in pain from weeks of chemotherapy followed by an operation. Gwen, once full of energy and a zeal for life, was now gaunt and weak. But her disposition belied all this. She was optimistic and managed an occasional smile as we carried on a conversation. Gwen always tried to keep a positive outlook on things, even in this difficult episode of life. It hadn’t occurred to me this would be our final trip together. Gwen died eight months later at the age of 50, after losing her five-year battle to cancer.
That September car ride with my sister made me realize that the beauty of the season I admire so much came about because of death. The splendour of the autumn leaves was the result of the foliage entering its final cycle of plant life. The life of ordinary green was transitioning into the death of extraordinary yellow, orange and red. The leaves, in their final and, ironically, most spectacular-looking stage, were being cut off from branches and would soon be falling to the earth. How could death bring so much beauty? Since when is there anything beautiful about death?
There is a purpose for the seasons. The different times of the year are a witness to the eternal. Seasons are the design of God. The personality of God flows through all creation and the seasons are an inherent part of all of this. The seasons remind us that we are always in transition. Summer nods off into autumn, which enters a deep sleep to become winter. Winter awakens into spring and then blossoms into summer. Death is not the end, but the beginning of something new.
The author of Ecclesiastes speaks of the wisdom of the seasons. “For everything there is a season. There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:1-5).
Celtic wisdom recognizes the eternal world as being so closely connected to the natural world that death is not something to be feared or seen as a threat. The world of nature and the seasons, Celtic wisdom teaches, flows into the final season of eternal life. There is no darkness, shadows or pain in this final transition, only an eternity with God.
“I am going home with thee, to thy home, to thy home. I am going home with thee, to thy home of winter. I am going home with thee, to thy home. I am going home with thee, to thy home of autumn of spring and of summer. I am going home with thee, my child of my love to thy eternal bed to thy perpetual sleep” (Celtic Prayer).
Paproski is a Benedictine monk and priest of St. Peter’s Abbey.