The Rituals of Autumn

October 20, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


We are now a full month into the season of autumn, a beautiful season in New England as we enjoy the spectacular foliage, the slightly cooler days, the chores we undertake to prepare our yards for the coming of winter as well as the traditional fall cleaning that many  observe since their parents did before them.  We live in a place where our seasons are truly distinct, and there are many who choose to live here because they love the changing of the seasons and the gifts that are offered in nature over the course of the year.  We understand that the unfolding of the seasons appears often in scripture as most people in earlier times lived their lives according to the rites of nature by necessity.  The weather, the daylight and darkness, the moon and the stars were all important as people lived off of the land.  And so today, we are invited to consider what this season means to us, what learning we may glean, and how the rituals of autumn connect to our own practices and provide lessons about our own lives and our connection to our God, the Creator of this amazing cycle of life.  Let us pray, Eternal One, teach us about the natural cycles of life that you share through the beauty of the seasons.  Open us to new learning, new lessons and new practices that we may grow closer to you and truly embrace this season of autumn with open hearts and spirits. Amen.

In the passage from Isaiah, we hear the prophet speak of some of the tasks of the harvest,

“ For before the harvest, when the blossom is over
and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he will cut off the shoots with pruning hooks,
and the spreading branches he will hew away.”

For the gardeners among us, the seasons engage us in various tasks throughout the year, especially from spring to summer and into fall before the cold and snow return.  The season of autumn finds people pruning away their bushes, harvesting vegetables and fruit, canning and freezing, and cutting back their gardens for the fallow time as the land rests for the winter.  We know that this enables new life, new plantings, new flowers to return in the spring and summer of the next year.  And, as the prophet says,

They shall all be left
to the birds of prey of the mountains
and to the animals of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
and all the animals of the earth will winter on them.

What is left behind is taken as food for the birds and animals as they too prepare for the coming of the cold.  Most of us do not depend upon our gardens as our sole source of food, but many farmers in the world do and they depend upon their produce to provide much needed resources.  Gardening does provide a glimpse into the very hard work it takes to make a garden, never mind a farm, productive.

What then does autumn offer for most of us? We know that autumn provides a time a transition from longer and warmer days to increasingly colder and darker days ahead.  In the summer, we enjoy much greater daylight, longer days to both work and to play, but with the autumnal equinox, we have more equal hours of light and darkness.  Here in New England, autumn provides amazing colors as leaves turn from green to orange and red and cover the ground with beautiful hues.  For many, this is a season of change.  As we watch the leaves fall from the trees, we are reminded of the changes in our own lives as we consider what we may wish to let go of, what we wish to shed so that we may welcome new life ahead.  Our fall cleaning both indoors and out includes cleaning out and making way for newness, new life ahead.  And, the coming of winter provides us with a time to absorb the changes in our lives as we may take time to rest and reflect and eventually to look ahead to the hope of spring.  Leaves grow back in branches and flowers are set blooming again. Spring is the rebirth of life. Meanwhile summer lies ahead, and provides a time to celebrate the full cycle with the sun glowing on a cloudless sky.

For me, the reds and golds and orange of autumn are colors of comfort.  The scents too are wonderful from apple crisps and pies to pumpkin bread and cinnamon spices.  We surround ourselves with the harvest of the season and many share from their gardens and kitchens to provide comfort and sustenance with others.

Autumn is an ideal time for people to honor who they are by letting go of the past and welcoming the present. A lot of people embrace certain rituals to allow time for renewal of oneself. Many believe that following the seasons helps improve their quality of life and enhances their spiritual lives. We find ourselves grateful for all of the gifts of this season and we are invited to reflect gratefully in a direct way when families and friends gather to celebrate Thanksgiving.  We know though, that we don’t need to wait for that day to take stock of the past year and offer thanks to our Creator for these many gifts.

The author, Gary Thorp, who wrote Caught in Fading Light, suggests that this is a season of Letting Go.  For him, the autumn leaves falling to the ground remind people about the virtue of letting go. Autumn is a time to release the hurts of life and to embrace the beauty of being alive.   Thorp speaks about the possibility that someday, people might just find themselves alone in life, and at such times, they are free to choose between the light and darkness.  We will have the opportunity to choose whether to remain in the dark or light a lantern to light our lives and those of others.  The Rev. Harold Kushner, author of a book entitled, The Lord is My Shepherd, shares his view that the only thing that is permanent in this life is change.  He points out the ways in which the unfolding of autumn reflect the changes one undergoes in life.  The bare branches, Kushner writes, are reminders of the passing and impermanence of things in this life.

Soon the colors of autumn will fade and be replaced by the muted colors and temperatures of chilly winter. And so, the cycles of the seasons provide the important invitation that we must accept, welcome and embrace the changes and cycles of the season because these are the principles on which life basically rests.

In the book entitled The Circle of Life, The Heart’s Journey through the Seasons, Joyce Rupp and Macrina Widerkehr, whose Blessing Lamar shared earlier, speak about the gifts and challenges, the rituals and opportunities of each of the seasons. In An Autumn Teaching, we read, “As I reflected on how Earth graciously yields and moves from the season of harvest into her winter mode of emptiness, I recognized how much she has to teach me about being content to wait, to linger, to hibernate, to relish inactivity through my own empty seasons.  I thought about my busy life and I wondered why I had not learned and lived this wise lesson.  I questioned my aversion to letting go of my productivity, giving away, being emptied, and waiting for restoration.”  (p.179)  It seems to me that we are provided with this important reminder again and again throughout our lives, but what is it that causes us to ignore the precious lessons of the seasons?  Why do we feel that we are not entitled to rest and replenish ourselves even as we know how important that is for the land, for nature, for our own gardens and farms?  Why can’t we allow our own inner landscape a time of rest and replenishment after the production of our own harvests through responsibilities to work and family and chores and volunteerism?  Lessons abound.  What are the lessons that speak to you this year?  What does autumn invite you to learn in your own life?

Let us end with this prayer from The Circle of Life, “Maker of the Seasons, thank you for all that autumn teaches us.  Change our focus so that we see not only what we are leaving behind, but also the harvest and the plentitude that our lives hold.  May our hearts grow freer and respond to the many teachings that this sacred season offers to each one of us.”  Amen.