The gradually fading glory of autumn is also a gentle hint of death. Fall is the sunset of summer. When the fields are harvested and the fruit trees are picked, when the golden leaves turn brown and brittle and are swept into nature’s corners by the crisp fall breezes, and when the broad and brooding harvest moon has had its boastful say, little remains of the lush summer green or the bright spring blooms. Death has deftly and smugly plied its sickle once again.
Somehow, though, the death of autumn has a sweetness to it. Its melancholy mood attracts, instead of repels. It draws us toward it. It invites us to walk with it and listen to its silent plea. Under the guise of autumn, death shows itself to be a natural companion, or—as St. Francis of Assisi famously dubbed it—our sister. Yes, things pass, death comes and steals them away, and yet we know that such is the way of this earth. Our grief is blunted by this knowledge, by this yearly tour of brown grass, bare limbs, raked lawns, and fallow fields. Here in our fallen world, death, though often unwelcome, is not a stranger. Death teaches us detachment, the hard but necessary lesson that we should not cling too strongly to anything here below, because everything earthly fades away. As the medieval monks used to put it, sic transit gloria mundi, thus passes the glory of this passing world.
One of the most famous phrases in the entire Catholic liturgy comes from a preface used during the holy Mass celebrated in memory of the dearly beloved who have died. It describes death, in light of Christ’s own crucifixion and resurrection, as life that has “changed not ended,” and in so doing it reiterates the wisdom of Christian detachment.
It’s an ancient Catholic tradition to visit a cemetery on November 2, the Day of the Dead, in order to pray for the souls who have passed on and may still be undergoing purification before their entrance into heaven. It is also a way to remind ourselves that here we have no lasting city. This week, visit a cemetery and walk prayerfully among the memorials of the dead, asking God to enlighten you with the wisdom that comes from an eternal perspective.
In the subdued sunlight of autumn, infusing the burgundy and golden brown tones of fall with the warmth of a smiling sadness, let us take the hand of our sister, Death, in whatever way she shows herself, and trust that she, too, under the irresistible wisdom of Providence, is but one more mysterious manifestation, perhaps even a beckoning invitation, of God’s eternal love.