There are whispers of restoration and resurrection running everywhere through the fibers of the natural world.
Autumn is a descent toward death.
There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood; the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life; the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment); and finally, the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.
Here we are in the final throes of autumn. November is spent, but December feels full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest. Most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. Winter seems to offer a gateway to restoration — a time to retreat and reflect during long hours under blankets or around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places to correct the warped trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my spirit for another year of life and adventure.
In these moments of contemplation, I find whispers of restoration and resurrection running everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” goes the old adage.1 From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs into the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation: liquid turning to gas. Describing the scientific process doesn’t make it any less wonderful—we might as well call it a miracle.
Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on the subject in her book Housekeeping. At one point the narrator, Ruthie, a young girl living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in the orchard have died:
“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.”2
Living things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back again in manifold forms, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must when the earth is used up and the sun goes dark? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.
Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again:
“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”3
The darker life becomes, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferate, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.
I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built into the universe as necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and he becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against Nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires produce fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.
Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept an end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season—pumpkins and spices, flannel and harvest festivals, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the night—would become at best a hedonistic mask, attempting to cover a season of despair and futility.
For those with a limited view of reality, autumn is a season of despair. We all fall under winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust. We cannot see past the cold grave. At least, not with our physical faculties.
“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?”4 He finds a grounded answer by looking back to the Maker, the One from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new leaves, and who has himself passed through the great winter of death. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.
“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”5
- This quote is popularly attributed to Martin Luther: http://sanrafaelop.org/2014/04/20/easter-the-promise-of-resurrection/
- Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980 (emphasis mine)
- ibid (emphasis mine)
- Foreman, Jon. “My Coffin.” The Wonderlands: Shadows. Lowercase people records, 2015