Monday, September 23, 2019

Autumnal Spirituality

As the temperature drops and summer green turns to autumn reds, my spirituality shifts. Living in New Hampshire gives us four distinct seasons. More than that, if you count mud season and black fly season. But I am thinking of the four traditional seasons marked by solstice and equinox.

As autumn arrives I become aware of loss. I am losing the opportunity to take a dip in Squam Lake. I am losing the warm days of tee shirts and shorts. I am losing afternoons sitting on the shore of Lake Chocorua. I am losing open windows and a breeze blowing through my living room. I am losing the sound of crickets and frogs at night. I am missing the sight of loons on the lake and hummers in my backyard.

But with the coming of autumn I also gain things. The enjoyment of fall foliage, the smell of wood smoke, vibrant blue skies, invigorating walks in crisp fresh air. There is also the anticipation and preparation for fall and winter holidays.  I can’t say I am looking forward to winter, but I am excited about fall! Autumn invites us to a spirituality sensitive to both loss and gain.

As we age we become more aware of what we have lost. I am particularly conscious of this because I just celebrated another birthday. It happens every September! I am now 69 and starting my seventh decade of my life. (Remember that we number birthdays by the year just finished.) Next year is the big 7-0. Young, according to my octogenarian friends, but still a milestone for me.

My nine-year old grandson, who is almost exactly 60 years younger than I (our birthdays are three days apart, which makes it easy to remember his age) stares at me wide-eyed when I tell him we did not have cell phones and video games when I was his age. Not even computers! “What did you do?” he wonders aloud.

The longer one lives, the more one loses. One loses family members and friends to death. One day I realized I was the oldest living member of my family. My family’s property on Lake Winnipesaukee – so much a part of my childhood and our children’s childhood - is gone. Sold to pay the taxes. I drive through town and identify houses by who used to live there. I realize that I am the only one who has certain memories. Then you begin to lose your memory!

While celebrating my grandson’s ninth birthday at the Common Man restaurant in Ashland recently, a graying man came up to our table and asked if I was Marshall Davis. I reticently responded “Yes,” careful to put my feet on the floor in case I needed to make a quick getaway.

He introduced himself … and his wife at the next table … and explained that I performed their wedding on Church Island 31 years ago. They were there celebrating her birthday and their anniversary! Furthermore their 27 year-old daughter is getting married soon. Would I mind if they took a photo of me with them to post on social media?

Time marches on, as they say. My body is also clearly marching on. When I mention symptoms to my doctor, she graciously uses the word “maturing” rather than aging. After a while I realize I am going to deal with some ailments for the rest of my life. Middle age is past. Middle means halfway. When I do the math, I realize I do not know anyone who is 140.

Aging is not a bad thing. We gain things with age, just as autumn brings its gifts. It brings a certain degree of wisdom (although I know some old fools!) It brings happiness. Studies show that the happiest times of life are childhood and retirement. Age brings free time and independence (if one is blessed with an adequate pension and health insurance). For me it brings the thrill of exploring the spiritual depths of life untethered from pastoral responsibilities and undeterred by the glare of doctrinal watchdogs.

I am grateful for the autumn of life. Even losses can be blessings. For example my doctor says I should lose weight! So I am trying to lose pounds in order to gain years. Autumn is beautiful because of the losses. The loss of chlorophyll in the maple leaves is what brings out the color! Spiritual insights come forward when one is forced to let go of what one cannot keep. That includes material things as well as career and professional prestige.

It also includes letting go of one’s soul. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul will keep it.” The New Living Translation puts it: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.” Another translation says, “Whosoever shall seek to save his soul shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose it shall cause it to live.”

Our lives are not ours to keep. It is better to learn that before we are forced to surrender them. Our bodies will return to the earth from which they came. The spirit of life that animates our bodies will return to God. Our “self” will dissipate like the mist it is. In the end we lose everything – except who we truly are. I am speaking of our undying nature. Some call it the immortal soul. It is often called eternal life.  

Our true nature, our divine life in God, cannot be lost because it is not ours. We belong to it, and not it to us. The sooner we identify with what cannot die, the better we will live. As missionary Jim Elliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Autumn reminds me of this reality. It reminds me of what I gain by losing. That is why I love fall. It renews life in me.