"Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,
And little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,
summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still.
At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers."
--"Autumn Begins" by Meng Hao-Jan
I am driving through the wooded countryside: froth on the lake; webs of spiders catching shimmer of morning; patchwork horses white and wagging auburn tails, grazing in grass dappled in Meng’s dew. All of creation shining: even as fall encroaches ruby red into emerald encrusted trees.
In this light, it is easy to slip into cozy sentiments of autumn: pumpkin lattes and cardigans, apple orchards and hay rides, cider and football games, candy corn and quilts. It is a season that seems all cinnamon and cloves, a time of year that can be so unabashedly sweet that we in this country, as was noted in one recent radio advertisement, can even bemoan the cost of candy trick-or-treaters expect us to dole out.
And yet, a little over a month and a half ago, on September 15, Orthodox Christians celebrated the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. This is the last major event on the Church calendar until Advent begins. Yes, there are some lesser feasts thrown in there, but by and large, the Elevation of the Cross is what we have liturgically to carry us through the majority of autumn.
I wonder if the reason for this, in part, is so that we have a whole season to meditate on the Cross: the reality of our Christian lives. The days get shorter, and the cold and dark press into our bones like mortality. Is it perhaps the clear, cold winds shaking away at the full summer foliage that exposes the stark form of our humanity more clearly: violence overseas, miscarriages, unexpected illnesses; death shrouding our whole being: one elderly relative labors to breathe and another struggles to remember as dementia gnaws away at his mind.
I read this quote from Mother Maria Skobtsova, an Orthodox Christian saint, on another blog post:
“This necessity of choice always stands before each man: the warmth and coziness of this earthly home, well-protected from wind and storms, or the endless space of eternity, in which there is only one firm and unquestionable thing, and this firm and unquestionable thing is the cross."
I type these words to be read by rich and well-fed as others in the world fight battles that modern comforts and conveniences keep at bay: those wrought by nature and suffering; the ills that ravage a being unmediated and unmedicated by things I daily take for granted.
I see a photo of a mother and read the corresponding report of her and her infant son fleeing persecution in Syria for a better life in another part of the Middle East. Only a few hours later, I listen to reports of a priest and his parish who live in constant fear of terror and death as they seek only to live their Faith among hostile territory near the same region.
I listen—and I eat a pumpkin cookie with buttercream frosting.
I listen—then change the channel to hear about another man promoting a new book here in the States.
Who am I to speak about Faith and trust and courage when the bravest witness seems to be among the silent— and the silenced? Why should I bother to be another voice dropping a humble little post into this vast, digital sea of words?
Tears burn in my eyes as I bring up stories and articles related to American journalist James Foley, who (if you haven’t heard) was recently beheaded as he conducted his work overseas. And I am reminded by his witness—as a Christian AND a journalist—of the power of the pen.
Humorist Finley Peter Dunne, in the early 1900’s, coined the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in describing (or perhaps somewhat satirizing) the role of the newspaper.
Sometimes silence bears a witness, but sometimes silence is a co-conspirator with evil. How can I shirk the freedom I have to speak? How can I not run with the light of day while I have it? Gratitude is accepting and using what I’ve been given, humility is regarding it as “just doing my job”, courage is continuing on when it’d be easier to quit. All three are battles I lose. Often.
And yet, the burden to write is not easy to shake off. It is something akin to this Bible verse in Jeremiah 20:9, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”
Indeed, I cannot.
No matter how humble the contents or context; whether it’s only one voice or one among many, if I speak, it should bear witness to truth: comforting or afflicting in due season.
If there is any significance in the season of autumn coinciding with the season of the Cross, it is perhaps to remind us of the equalizing power of death on all places and all people: whether rich or poor, persecuted or safe, healthy or sick. Death will come for all of us, surer than even taxes.
Leaves slip off the trees and we find in their stark forms a reflection of our own humanity, bare and vulnerable, reaching into the cold and dark for life. And yet, to those trees has come also the Tree of the Cross: the “one firm and unquestionable thing” that truly comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
An Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Freeman, writing on the tragedy of human existence notes:
“The suffering of old age is indeed tragic. To watch a brilliant mind numbed by dementia is devastating. To see the savings of a lifetime devoured by sickness is tragic as well. But they are tragedies that have been gathered into the Cross, the Great Tragedy, and by that gathering they become a locus of triumph, healing, redemption, sanctification, justification, illumination. If this is not true of all tragedy, then the Cross would be empty and without effect.”
I became a Christian, and later converted to Orthodox Christianity, for two reasons:
The first one is death.
The second is Resurrection.
Autumn begins, and earth is engulfed by the shadow of the cross.And yet, even here, trees strain with ruby red and gold, and lit dew shimmers.