I always become a little melancholy this time of year. Summer is turning to autumn which means the long winter lies ahead. Baseball season will soon be over (the Red Sox seem determined to end it early this year), and while we will have football to get us through half the winter, it will end in the numbing cold of late January leaving us several weeks before spring training and the boys of summer arrive once more.
But why be so blue? After all, it is among the prettiest times of year. Leaves are turning, there is a clean crispness in the air, and if one is lucky they can catch whiffs of hearth fires burning. I grew up knowing there were four seasons in a year, but really just believed in three: baseball season, football season and (to a lesser extent) basketball season. After becoming a Catholic I learned about another calendar: The Liturgical Year. And, in the Church’s liturgy, it’s the second round of Ordinary Time.
Turning to the sports calendar it’s playoff time and the World Series is on deck. Whether your team is alive or not it is the most exciting time of the baseball season. And the young college football season has kicked off, too. But one can’t ignore the specter of the winter that lies ahead.
Or that’s how I used to be. And that’s why I embraced the liturgical calendar so much. Sure, Ordinary Time sounds well…ordinary. But it’s anything but ordinary. It, and winter, is a time of preparation before the new year, Advent followed by Christmas, will soon arrive.
“We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song.” – Pope John Paul II
Regarded as the “bleakest” of the seasons, winter serves essentially as the adagio of the calendar year. It stands in much the same place as does the Third Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Far from being weak, it prepares us, through sorrow, for glory. I no longer find it to be so bleak.
This second period of Ordinary Time (the first part of Ordinary Time is sandwiched between Christmas and Lent) focuses on the importance of the Christ event for the life of the believing community. It celebrates the presence of Christ’s Spirit in the members of his body and looks to the fulfillment of the kingdom that is to come. This period of Ordinary Time not only ends the Church’s liturgical year but also heralds in the new. It shares with Advent a deep concern for the final (The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell) nature of the Christ event and helps us to view all that happens to us with the eyes of faith. It is in this season that we look back (Pentecost), look around (the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth, the Sacraments, and grace), and look forward (the four last things). By using this approach to examine our lives during this period of Ordinary Time, we uncover a call to urgent living. We come face to face with our own mortality. Seeing that we have only one life to live and that we have no idea when our own final hour will come, a sense of urgency to live our life the best way we know how gradually arises in our hearts. It reminds us that where our treasure is, there also we will find our hearts. (Matthew 6:19-21).
This call is not a call to compulsive living. It does not mean busying ourselves with our work and leaving no time for our relationships with ourselves, others, and God. Living life with urgency does not mean fitting more and more into less and less increments of time. It asks us only to allow God to accompany us in our daily tasks. The call to urgency means that we take a good look inside our hearts and ask ourselves what matters most to us in life.
And here’s where at long last I’ll get to my point.
“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together…” – Charles Dickens (Great Expectations)
While I can safely be accused of reflecting on events throughout the year, it is without a doubt during autumn that I do it the most. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that way. And even moreso since I became Catholic over eighteen years ago and began to follow the readings from Scripture at daily Mass. This year is shaping up to be no different. Every year on earth brings more exposure to saying goodbye it seems. I suppose this makes sense as I am getting older. Whether by indifference or due to death, the parting of ways is increasingly prevalent. We grow up, grow old and grow apart. The embers of friendship cool and grow cold, much as the temperatures do outside. Good friends are diagnosed with illnesses that are unpredictable at best.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” (The Four Quartets)
Facing this reality we may find ourselves reflecting upon our own lives. Of things we did do or should have done. I don’t do this to endlessly beat myself up, but this self-examination is important to assist one in accepting God’s grace, forgiving oneself (often the hardest person in the world to forgive) and moving forward with life. These are “lessons in humility” as Don Henley sang in “The Genie” in 2001 that help us to go forward and answer that call to urgent living that I mentioned earlier.
And the past comes back to smack you around
For all the things you thought you got for free
For the arrogance to think that you could somehow
Defy the laws of gravity
These are lessons in humility
Penitence for past offenses
That is always the part no one likes to think about. Not just judgment from God or from others, but having to judge ourselves. It’s not often pretty, but in the end it bears fruit because we dare to look at that man or woman in the mirror with intensity and honesty.
“I should have gone to confession before driving class tonight. You never know the date or the hour,” my oldest son quipped this week, paraphrasing St. Matthew when describing the capabilities of the other person he was partnered with in his weekly driver’s education lesson on the streets of our town. Apparently she’s more than a little erratic.
Life is often erratic. It’s not all smooth sailing. In the end we make most of our own waves that crash into the boats of other lives and sometimes bounce back harder into our own. Or sometimes they happen for reasons not known to us, but we still have a choice as to how we’ll react to them.
This week I received an email from a dear friend of mine that confirmed she had been diagnosed with cancer. Without giving her away I will quote something she wrote because I found a deep strength within it:
I am past the panic and pity party. I really and truly have turned it all over to God. I have many wonderful friends and family that are praying. And so am I. … My heart and soul are in a better place. I do have cancer. I will have to have surgery. Anything beyond that isn’t certain. … Decisions to be made after we get all the data we need. Plus side, it is early…you can’t even feel the mass. Caught on mammogram. Make your wife stay current with hers. … Also on the plus side, I have some of the most amazing friends. Angels disguised as humans. Anyway, one can never ever get too many prayers so keep them flowing, please.
As Eliot continued in East Coker:
Old men ought to be explorers*
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
(*I would change the first line to read “Older men and women ought to be explorers.”)
My friend is an explorer. She is a prime example of one who is being still while still moving.
This represents one of the paradoxes of the liturgical calendar. For those of us who utilize it, our experience is, at one and the same time, both forward moving and cyclical, an image of an upward spiral. We are journeying upwards towards God through a series of cleansing, transformative and unitive experiences. We are reminded that our journey to God is not merely an individual venture, but one of an entire people: explorers finding their end in their beginning. And that’s nothing to be melancholy about.
Note: There Is a Season: Living the Liturgical Year, by Dennis J. Billy and published by Liguori Publications was used while researching portions of this post.