A moment of it makes everything stop.
There are walks. The daily, good kind you take for health and hard breath and the swift, quick lengthening of leg. And there are rambles. The kind you plan for a late afternoon, brisk and bright, not so businesslike that the beauty of the earth leans back from your speed, but still marked by the set intent of exercise or the benefits of the fresh, free air.
And then there are wanderings. The ambles you take when you had no plan for a walk, the kind that come when you glimpse the toss of burnished leaves against incoming storm and know that in one more day the gold will be gone. The kind that come when a line of rose light breathes up the underbelly of an evening cloudbank and you know you must run to catch something precious, something that will fade and never come again.
That was the kind of walk I found late Saturday afternoon when the high wind and the shivering trees, all ashimmer in their worn splendor, shook me awake, sang me to my feet and drew me into the long paths of the park nearby. I strode hard, the strike of each foot joyous because that wind was woven of coming cold and honeyed light and the fire of dying leaves. It was the kind of day you wish you could somehow imbibe, like wine sipped velvet or golden from a glass, a day to be tasted and savored, to warm every atom of blood and soul.
I made it over the bridge toward the back and into open meadow. My feet sloshed through mud with the giant trees and their spare, balding limbs all restless overhead and the rumor of a western-coming storm in a whisper through the grass at their feet. I reached the right angle turn to the next meadow and found a scene that halted my feet, and drew breath, heart, and eye into an instant of concentrated beholding.
In this age of Instagram, the all-too-easy impulse was to pull out my phone, put a screen between myself and that scene and let it, with a bit of filtering, stand in for what ought to be my song, what ought to be an outspoken cry half of desire, half joy, and woven all through with something very much like grief. I reached for the phone, but I halted. I let my breath slow. And set my mind instead to the task of telling. I set eye to watching and head to choosing the fit words to gesture in bright strokes toward the beauty I saw, because such splendor demanded a whole and present self. To articulate the splendor was a kind of praise.
The hour was late, the light low, a storm in slow dark drift across the fields. But the gold of the fading day sped up the grass just inches ahead of the darkness. The sun was fierce. There was no gentleness in its raging against the dying of the light as it soaked the soil and leaves, steeped the air in a pale, spiced sheen, and left this walker with the sense that I walked, adrift, in light. The wind made an undulation like ocean waves of the sunset, ebb and flow of earth’s great, heaved breaths, with great black flocks of graceful birds tossed in its capers. The birds neither fought nor flew, but simply dove and spun as the wind willed, stark, black, graceful shapes flung in profile across the wedge of an almost-full moon already pearl bright in the high, blue sky.
And as I watched, I knew myself the still point in that spinning world. I felt the world as a turning that never halts, made of season and storm and sky and light in unrelenting rhythm. Never have I been so keenly aware of the forward drive of the earth. And thus, its fleet, unresting grace. The beauty of the day was beyond my grasp even as it touched my hand. I put out my sight to catch it, and already knew it gone. On and on it drove, like a dancer in a whirl it couldn’t stop.
And abruptly, loving the beauty, I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to get that moment firmly in my hands, to hold light and dark and storm and gold in the human grip of my need to get a hold on time and so get the future within my grasp. My own life felt too much like that day, too tied to the vivid, spinning earth, a forward energy I cannot stop or stay, my heartbeat and breath relentlessly driving me on each second to ends and selves I cannot begin to imagine. I feel bewildered by the march of life of late. I revel in it but cannot stay. I can’t catch up. I can’t get on my feet, can’t accomplish all I dream, love all I see, pray, give, make, write, when time drags me so relentlessly on. I live with a constant perturbation at my inability to get my hands round time and wrestle it to my will. And for an instant, I was very aware of the shadows gathering at my back.
But standing there in the bright, gold chill, I remembered a class on Church doctrine that week. They say that doctrine is dry stuff. At least, so I’ve often been told. But I listen in my classes with bated breath. To hear the tenets of my faith teased out, made plain, to deepen every single theological word I know with fresh insight is to feel my capacity for belief quite doubled. The class I recalled was on the Trinity.
By lesson’s end that day my brain was alight with a freshened vision of the God who is Love in a kind of circled dance between Beloveds. A God who is, in his essence, community. A God who is in his essence, motion. The motion of love ever given, ever received, a circle of ceaseless, unhalting, eternal affection. I used to think that if I could look up into the heavens, somehow “see” God, I would see a static single figure on a throne. Still. Motionless. Immoveable. And of course, there’s an aspect of truth in that concept. But in that class on Trinity, a new image came blazing into my mind and I imagined myself looking up to the ultimate point of being to find it a moving circle of Love. And if the core of Reality is love given and received, then the core of all existence is a kind of dance. A circle. An onward rush of Love’s ceaseless motion.
In that Love we live and move and have our being. And that is the Love come down into time, into my windswept moment, my swift, insecure life, a love come down to die to draw me back into His dance.
For it’s death I fear in the season’s change and savoring the shadows there, I knew it. In a fallen world, the onward rush of time leads inevitably to human decline and my frail, faltering self, young as I am, feels the chill of that end reaching back to me within the onward march of time. The years pass more swiftly even the little older I get. I understand that I may not reach the dreams I desire, may not complete the ideals of work or love or creativity I bear. The change of the seasons now marks more clearly what I have not accomplished than what I have, and worse, reveals my weakness. Each change presents me with the loss of what I thought I would be, and so, amidst the beauty, I begin to be afraid.
For loss marches toward me. I look at those autumn fields and know that winter comes next, for the earth… and perhaps for myself.
But hush, my soul. Hush swift, beating heart and anxious mind there in the ripened beauty of the windy autumn fields. For Love has come into the circle of time and taken it back into his own eternal dance. The world does turn ever on. The seasons are a dance like the Love in whose imagination they began. My own heartbeat, my breath, my morphing thoughts reflect the onward push of Divine affection moving out and forward, giving, making, offering itself anew. But when the motion of time became a shattered, broken thing, cut off from the life of God, ending in withered death, Love came down and died. And when Love came back alive, time was taken back into his dance and now in every heart that chooses Love, time marches, not to death, but back into the circle that began it. The end of my life is not in the loss of all the dreams I bore, but in their final expression, beyond what I, seeing only the limits of time, can imagine.
In Love, nothing is lost. Beauty abides, and nothing will die in earnest that is taken up into Love’s ever-given, never-ending life. Here, in the time-marked earth, I yet stand by faith within eternal Love, and the motion around me is not to be feared, but met with a growing, chosen hope. Onward the days rush, onward the years, onward my changing self amidst the changing face of the earth. But Love’s forward motion began us, and Love’s death redeemed us, and Love’s great pulsing life has taken us into itself and someday, the last winter will fade, the last night end. But the dance will never cease; on Love goes making us all anew, weaving us into His great, given life.
Dark pooled at my feet. The light died. But above me the moon was a wedge of brilliance in the sky and the stars were already alight.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.