It was a warm November day, the leaves had only recently begun to turn, and the maples along our street were blazing in deep reds and oranges. The air smelled earthy, pungent, and I could hear the crackle of the fall leaves beneath my feet even over the podcast on my AirPods.
All of this will be gone in just a few days, I thought, glad now that the trees had been so late to turn color this year. Some leaves need only shorter days to force their change, and the days were certainly growing shorter. But others need cooler temperatures, I learned just a week earlier, particularly the leaves that turn red. And with a warmer than average fall, predictions about peak leaf season were off by two or three weeks in some areas of the country.
But beyond the science, I was also thinking about how beautiful the trees were at that moment–maybe the most beautiful they’d be all year. Within days, they’d lose all their leaves and die their annual death ahead of winter’s bleakness. Of course the trees weren’t actually dying: dormancy is more like a seasonal sleep cycle that actually keeps them alive during dark, frigid days. But as I walked the final block to my house, I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind: The closer to death things are, the more beautiful they become.
The illusion of winter waste
I often associate winter with death: not just for the trees, but in all the ways the season of darkness and cold feels stiff and lifeless. The stunning colors of fall set us up for the deep disappointment of skeletal emptiness. My childhood fear of darkness seems to sneak back up on me in the shortened days. The accumulation of snow and ice on streets and sidewalks means moving about normally, bears heightened risk. Winter feels like such a waste.
Sometimes, life feels like that too, especially the seasons of life we associate with winter. I think of the final season of my mom’s life–her personal winter of suffering–how her days seem to be wasted in a body that was diminished by disease and aging.
If someone asked me about the best days of Mom’s life, the most beautiful, I’d tell them about the peppy teenager I’d met in black and white photos from Mom’s old yearbook, or the young mom with moxy who moved mountains to make sure her children were okay. I might mention the 30-something who survived the deep sorrow of losing a brother to overdose, a mother to cancer, and a husband to divorce. Or even the young grandma who played on the floor with grandbabies, or the 50-something woman who reinvented herself by taking on a new career just a decade before retirement.
But I would never have told you about the aging widow, locked in the prison of a crippled body, drooling on herself and unable to say her own name so others could understand it. At least not until that day in November walking under a canopy of maple trees. If it was really true–if the closer to death things are, the more beautiful they become–then what if Mom’s final days were actually her most beautiful?
Day by day renewal
As I absorbed this truth the trees were teaching me, it realized it wasn’t new information. I’d read something very similar in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer person is decaying, yet our inner person is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, New American Standard Bible).
In fact, this was a verse I’d read dozens of times, but the reality of it hadn’t landed in me so poignantly until I discovered it in the trees and recognized it in Mom’s life. And as autumn passed into winter, the trees had still more to reveal about the connection between this life and the next.
A few weeks after the leaves had all dropped, I noticed the tiny knobs on the ends of several tree branches: a magnolia on Forest Drive, a sycamore at a nearby park, the tulip poplar in our backyard. I used to worry when I’d see the little buds–some fuzzy, some pointy, others round and smooth. It’s not time for new growth, I’d think.
Then I read in Katherine May’s book, Wintering, that “most trees produce their buds in high summer, and the autumn leaf fall reveals them, neat and expectant, protected from the cold by thick scales” (p. 70). Even when it appears that the tree is doing nothing, it is in fact using a season of rest (of death) to prepare for new life.
“A bud is a tree’s way of getting a leaf or flower through the winter,” writes Beth Botts for the Chicago Tribune. “When it’s too cold and water is locked up in ice, plants can’t grow. But even in a cold-winter climate, woody plants can get a head start on next year by forming buds while it’s still warm and then pausing their growth until spring.”
May says the trees are “waiting” for spring, but not waiting without hope.
“It is far from dead,” she writes. “It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly” (Wintering, p. 70).
And here, the trees offer another truth, like Paul, that “our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB). We like to draw conclusions from what’s most obvious: the trees we marveled at in spring and fall, and sheltered under in the warmth of summer are now just shadows, dead or dying, certainly not worth our attention. But in fact, it’s what we can’t see, or at least not easily–the roots pulling in moisture, the sap slowing and nourishing, the buds, furled and protected–that make it possible for the tree to survive.
Paul says the same is true in all of life: “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18, NASB).
In the Church, we often refer to “the sacraments” as those ceremonies or rituals that bring blessing or grace to the participants. Broadly speaking, communion and baptism are considered sacraments in the Protestant church, and in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, they add confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination. As St. Augustine defined them, the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible grace” (The Works of Saint Augustine: v. 1. Sermons on the Old Testament, 20-50, pg 358).
But in life, there are many of these signs all around us, like the trees, pointing to the deeper work of God in the world. In Sensing God: Experiencing the Divine in Nature, Food, Music & Beauty, Joel Clarkson says that sacraments “embody what is already happening in heavenly realms beyond our limited existence here on earth” (p. 42). You might even say that sacraments are like symbols, metaphors, imagery even, pointing toward what is true about God and his kingdom.
“A sacrament is a living engagement of the physical in the spiritual, of the time-bound in the eternal,” Clarkson continues, “and the sacraments of the church focalize in worship what is already true about the whole world: that the whole of the universe is itself sacramental, nature intertwined with the activity of Christ moving in and through it” (p. 42).
But it’s not only a sacramental world that’s interwoven with the wonder of God’s kingdom. It’s not just the sacraments themselves that are the gift, the given. Clarkson says that we too are “sacramental because we were made to recognize that testimony, to allow our hearts to be transformed by it, and in turn to return our rightly aligned passions back into the world sacramentally through everything we do and say” (p. 46). This sacramental life then, this sacramental way of being–to look at the earth and see heaven instead–this also is a gift, a gift of grace.
Hoping for what’s yet to come
We gathered with a small group of family members on a cold December morning to bury Mom’s ashes. It had been four months since she died, four months since I’d last held her hand as her body entered its final winter’s rest.
When the funeral director arrived that morning and set the urn next to the gravestone, I immediately reached out to touch it. Later, just before we left, I hugged the metal container close to my body, longing for one last touch from Mom. But then I left it to the grave, knowing that the ashes it contained are not Mom. Not anymore. They are just a sacrament, a whisper of the reality that this is not the end. Not for her, and not for us.
As we walked back to our cars, I heard the crunch of leaves again under my feet. I looked down. Some of the leaves were whole, as if they’d just dropped from the branch that morning. Others were tattered, though, and already becoming part of the humus. Mysteriously, the leaves were somehow both there and not there, retaining a tiny portion of the tree inside them even as they lost their shape. They were almost unrecognizable, but the effects were not. Life continued on.
And life continues on.
The most beautiful parts of life are yet to come.
Photo credit Charity Singleton Craig.