T. S. Eliot said, “April is the cruellest month,” but autumn is the most poignant of seasons. Richard Peck’s lovely poem, “The Geese,” captures this sentiment precisely:
My father was the first to hear
The passage of the geese each fall,
Passing above the house so near
He’d hear within his heart their call.
The leaves turn, gorgeous in their variety, color and tone. The cold snap in the air is invigorating after a long summer at this latitude, bringing with it the expectation of winter, gray, without purifying snow, at least in Virginia.
Father suffers a stroke, and mother drifts into a distant mental world. The household of one’s youth will be no more, scattered, existing only in memory. Blessedly, my parents will still be with us for a while longer.
A son-in-law, an Army surgeon, ships out to Iraq leaving behind his wife, our daughter, and a rambunctious brood. Another awaits orders next year for Afghanistan.
A dear friend observes the anniversary of a son’s death. And the list of ailing or departed friends remembered in our prayers grows longer each day.
And then at breakfast time he’d say:
“The geese were heading south last night,”
For he had lain awake till day,
Feeling his earthbound soul take flight
Our children, some well into adulthood, plunge into the life of the mind in college and graduate school, move to a ranch in Wyoming and a job in New York. Again, two daughters keep the home fires burning at military bases down south. Grandchildren are coming, quickly it seems, although most are far away, only one close at hand.
My wife recovers from knee surgery reminding us both of our mortality.
Sunrise, sunset, sunrise.
The house seems too quiet, unusual after three decades of near chaos and energy reverberating throughout. My father, enduring similarly anarchic circumstances in his household, used to say, “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.”
Our old cat, a stray, adopted by our children nineteen years ago, craves our affection, more than we can ever recall. Given the many other warm hands and hearts which used to minister to her needs, she is very demanding of the two of us. My wife swears that the feline misses our dog, a brute five or six times her size, for which she displayed nothing but haughty contempt after he intruded on her domain many years ago. Yet, she seems disoriented after his departure.
Knowing that winter’s wind comes soon
Alter the rushing of those wings,
Seeing them pass before the moon,
Recalling the lure of faroff things.
Career, politics, getting and spending — unhealthy preoccupations for too many years — seems to recede further and further, less and less a part of consciousness except for a few jarring episodes and very few epiphanies. Faith, family, friends, work and love — all these are now foremost in one’s thoughts.
Thinking back over the decades, the following passage from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, seemed a very hard teaching back in the halcyon days of prep school. Now it reads like self-evident truth, a consoling one at that:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
It is hard to feign indifference to the loveliness of fall, but the point is well taken that our lives, like the seasons, inexorably change. But unlike the seasons, our lives seek a destination, not just another return.
At the end of another beautiful, heart-rending autumn, Advent begins, drawing us from time into eternity, which is a thing not to be missed.
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