Learning the spiritual wisdom of the seasons...

The wise Parker Palmer once crafted an extended essay, "Seasons," for a time of retreat. At the heart of his reflection was this insight: the seasons of nature may be the best way to grasp the reality of the holy within our humanity. He writes: "Most of us have a metaphor, conscious or not, that names our  experience of life. Animated by the imagination, one of the most vital powers we possess, our metaphors are more than mirrors to reality – they often become reality, transmuting themselves from language into the living of our lives."

For most of my adult, professional life I have not considered the wisdom of the seasons in any deep way. I have always celebrated the beauty of autumn in New England - and elsewhere - and have long been captivated by pumpkins, too. But rarely have I thought about what our still speaking God might be saying to me - and our culture - about life and grace through the seasons. In fact, I used to treat winter as a mean-spirited endurance test to be avoided as much as possible. Our time in the desert South West did nothing to alter my antipathy for winter, nor did it help me explore the spirituality of the seasons. Yes, while on various retreats I came to meditate on the land while sojourning in the wilderness; to listen for the heartbeat of the holy is part of the desert's charism. Belden Lane's excellent book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, was my primer along with Henri Nouwen's words from the desert fathers and mothers. " The danger and the desolation of the desert is a boon to the soul with its unmitigated honesty, its dreadful capacity to strip bear, its long compelling silence."


But it wasn't until we returned to the great North that I sensed the importance of learning the spirituality of the seasons. Partially this revelation took shape, I know, simply because of my age. Like Dylan sang so long ago, "Something's going on all around you - and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" In this neck of the woods winter sports is part of the air people breathe. And the stark beauty of trees, snow, ice and rock tugged at my sensibilities much like the deserts of the South West. So, I started to read and listen and ask about what God might be saying to us within the winter. 


And after seven years it began to become clear that perhaps I should start doing likewise with the other three season. (I am a very slow learner.) I know I was prompted by participating in the new liturgical season of "creation." Same goes for my recent readings in Celtic spirituality. Both windows to the soul are all about seeing and hearing the holy from within reality - including the  
whispering of the Lord within our seasons. Parker observes:

Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It

suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all – and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.

One key insight Parker illuminates is the paradoxical reality experienced in autumn wherein we see great beauty all around us while knowing intuitively we are moving towards death. It is a paradoxical time that is simultaneously sensual and troubling. 


Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline:
the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance
decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what
does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new
growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon.In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.

I know this ambivalence - and dread - too. I feel it now as my father moves ever more slowly towards his inevitable death. What Parker asks, however, and what the wisdom of autumn spirituality invites goes beyond my feelings. "In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface - the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work. And yet if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come." How does prophet put it in Revelation 21? 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’


That is one truth from within the lexicon of autumn spirituality that I am learning this season. There are more, to be sure, but that is sufficient for the day.

credits: Dianne De Mott

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