This year, the autumnal equinox fell on September 22. On that day, the sun rested above the equator, meaning that there was an equal balance of light and dark, day and night. 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.
It's as if the natural world has been at a big, long, noisy, colorful party for three months! And now it's time to say good-bye, and settle down into the serious business of fall - the letting go that, for many living things, leads to death.
For me, fall is the most beautiful time of year here in the Midwest, not only in its colors, but also in its smells. The aroma of decaying leaves and vegetation... which, it would seem, should smell bad... is in fact so rich and fragrant that I can't breathe deeply enough to take it in.
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.
Summer is the season of productivity, both in Nature and in our spiritual lives. It's a time of curiosity and learning, of transformation and growth. We look at our lives with excitement, seeing where we were spiritually, and where we are now.
In our spiritual season of autumn, at least three things may happen:
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 challenges us in her book, Little Pieces of Light, 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."
I appreciate her acknowledgement that, just as in nature, spiritual seeds need time to rest before they grow. The wild growth of summer is important; it's a necessary part of the natural and spiritual cycles of life. But so is the unhurried pace of fall, a time when we begin to slow down. We relax into a period of introspection; growth becomes less important than being still.
And when we are still, when we're able to see both light and dark without turning away, we may come to recognize areas of our life where we need to let go. We may begin to see what we need to relinquish, in order to allow God to work within us. We may look for where we need to get out of the way, and let God be in control.
Autumn in nature forces us to accept the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We recognize that most things are impermanent, that every living thing will eventually die. As the season moves further away from summer and closer to winter, we watch the last leaves fall from the trees, the last blossoms drop their petals.
But these little deaths don't have to make us feel sad. They help us realize that every day, every life, is precious, that beauty must be noticed and treasured, in every season.
I have always been drawn to trees, but not only when they're covered with leaves. The dark silhouettes of bare branches against the sky are so beautiful, somehow full of dignity and quiet strength. They speak of endurance, of patience, and in their delicate, lacy patterns we can see God's handiwork. And we can be assured that the same beauty has been lavished upon us.
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.
And our spirits within 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.
May we enter into each autumn praising God for its particular beauty, taking comfort in the unchanging and yet always changing rhythm of life, remembering that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, "Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before."
Praise be that the God who set the seasons in motion is the same God who created and shaped and loved each one of us into being, the same God who walks with us through every season of our lives.