A time of Transition-Welcoming Autumn

This past week, we saw the changing of the seasons with the autumnal equinox on September 22. As the sun rests above the equator, it creates an equal balance of light and dark, day and night.  As one writer explains, “Nature pauses on the equinox, poised between leaving behind the extravagant productivity of summer, and taking a deep breath, slowing down for the coming transformation of fall.” Let us pray this morning, O Holy One of every Season, we ask that you bless us this day as we welcome your season of autumn.  We thank you for the gifts of summer past and we seek to be open to the ways in which our spirits may deepen through the beauty and changes of the coming of fall.  Be with us; inspire us; help us to pause and to breathe.  In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning reminds us that God is there to bring us comfort, that the Holy One is always present wanting to surround us with comfort.  Isaiah too speaks of the changing of the seasons, “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.   The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  The Word of our God promising comfort and peace to all who listen will stand forever.  In Mark’s reading, we hear the story of healing the man who was deaf and had some kind of speech impediment.  Mark writes, “they begged him to lay his hands on him,” and Jesus takes the man to a private place, puts his fingers into his ears and spits and touches his tongue.  With the words, Be Opened, the man is healed. We may imagine what that moment felt like.  For so long, he has been cut off from hearing other’s voices, the sounds of nature, words of compassion or love, all of these sounds were unknown to him, and then in a moment, he can hear and he can speak.  How will his life change from that point on?

In our own lives, such life changing moments may be few.  Often, transitions happen more gradually and if we are distracted, we may miss our own awakenings. Over the summer, we usually find the routines of our lives change as we spend more time out of doors, time with family or friends, time in the garden or at the beach, time out on the water for the boaters among us.  The air is mild and we enjoy the fullness of all of God’s creation in the beauty that unfolds.  Farmers work hard in the summer over long days to cultivate the food that will bring nourishment to our tables.  Now, with the change of seasons, all living things begin to change around us as we ease into autumn.  The evening dark comes sooner; the colors of the flowers and trees become more muted as the plants are harvested and things begin to return to the earth. 

            Despite having to let go of summer, there are many comforts in autumn from the colors of pumpkins and leaves to the smell of fires and baked apple pies.  It is almost as if the gifts of fall are waiting and ready to provide us respite as we prepare for the coming of winter. And we understand that the cycles of life require that we practice letting go; nature reminds us that all living things must decay and return to the earth; all things must die, as hard as that is sometimes to accept. 

Writer Lou Ann Karabel, in her piece entitled, ‘Fall: A Spiritual Season of Transformation’ shares some wonderful thoughts on autumn.  She describes the beauty of the coming season, “It’s also, of course, the time of great harvest.  The farmers are now harvesting the corn, leaving trails of gold. The dried spirals of cornstalk leaves – the ones that escaped the combine – are blown across the fields and the roads like tumbleweed. Everywhere you look, you see the oranges and yellows of the harvest, the purple and copper of chrysanthemums, the bright red of burning bushes and maple trees.  The extravagance of it all is hard to take in! If you’re like me, you want to turn your face up and laugh into the sky – that perfect, cloudless, blue sky of autumn.  It is so beautiful.  And it is so bittersweet.  Because we know that in a matter of weeks, the air will become cold, the trees will drop all their leaves, and the migrating birds will fly away, leaving us with still mornings, bereft of song. 

Fall begins with its feet in the warm grass of summer, and ends in the hard, dead grass of winter. And because we are often either/or people, it’s tempting to see one season as good and another as bad; the coming winter is either good or bad in relation to fall, depending upon which season you prefer. But actually, the seasons are not opposites; they are all parts of a perfect whole. As Thomas Merton writes, “There is, in all visible things… a hidden wholeness.”

And so it is with the seasons of the spirit. 

Our spiritual seasons don’t necessarily follow the same chronology as nature.  As you read this, you may be enjoying a spiritual summer. Or you may find yourself in the dormancy of winter. Whenever it comes, though, spiritual summer is always welcome. Fall, just as in nature, is more bittersweet.”

We often find that in summer, we are more active, more productive and that can overlap into our spiritual lives, but in autumn, our spiritual lives may be challenges in new ways.  “We may recognize and learn to accept both the light and the darkness within us.   We may let go of anything that is in the way of our relationship with God.  And we may acknowledge the impermanence of all things. 

If spiritual summer is about rejoicing in the light of God, fall is about facing and accepting our inner darkness. In the autumn equinox of our spirits, we too are poised, just like the natural world; we balance between the recognition of all that is good and right with our inner lives, and all that is not so good, not so right. 

At the heart of autumn sits both, and while most of us would prefer the light, life as human beings ensures that we will also experience the dark.  Rather than turning away, our inner autumn calls us to embrace it.

Joyce Rupp explains in her book, Little Pieces of Light,  that we are called to accept our inner darkness. She writes, “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 needed 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.”

For those who are gardeners and farmers, seeds need time to germinate, to rest before they grow toward the sun.  So it is within our own spiritual lives; the seeds that may have been planted over the past years are waiting to grow when they are ready.  Many of us plant bulbs in autumn as we look ahead to their blooming colors in the springtime. What may we choose to plant within our hearts this fall that will need time to bloom as we rest now and through the winter?  Autumn may provide a time of relaxation, of slowing down, of introspection and all of this is important for our very lives.

When we allow ourselves to be still, we may be able to better welcome both the light and dark in our days and in the world; we may come to listen to our inner lives and develop new understandings of how God is calling us to listen to the quiet workings of our hearts and to let ourselves be at peace, to follow paths of health and healing.  Often, we find that we need to let go of so much of the clutter of our days so that God may enter in to bring us healing or growth or nurturance.  When we are filled up, whether that be  the pace of our lives or within our minds and hearts, we have no time to be at peace with the One who loves us and seeks new ways to be in touch with us.

Returning to Harabel’s piece, she explains, “Fall, perhaps more than any of the other seasons, is a time of extremes.  We both celebrate the abundance of the harvest, and quietly mourn the ending of yet another cycle of life. We rejoice in the quality of golden light that only an autumn afternoon can produce, as we also settle into the growing hours of darkness.  We watch as the business of the natural world slows down, resting into the dormancy of winter.

“Our inner spirits mirror those same changes when we are in our inner season of autumn. We are thankful for the harvest of spiritual fruits in our lives, even as we begin to note areas where new seeds need space and time to take root. We are thankful that God’s light within us is never dimmed, no matter the season… even while we also acknowledge the areas of darkness. We slow down, we rest, we spend time discerning where we’ve been, and where we are headed.”

In the book of Ecclesiastes we hear these words, “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.”

            We give thanks to our God for the seasons of the year, for the ways in which our Creator continues to work in and through the beauty of nature, of all living things, and most especially the ways in which God moves within each of us, calling us to the joy and learning of the season to come.

(Fall: A Spiritual Season of Transformation, LouAnn Karabel, First Presbyterian Church, Valparaiso, IN)