Through a window, I saw a milky sun, low in the sky, shining weakly through the trees; and I heard, the browning, yellowing, leaves, blowing in the autumn wind.
Thomas Hardy called this ‘the susurration of trees’; their secret language, which, according to singer Bon Iver, reveals their ‘arboretic truth’.
At this time, of autumn, it speaks especially of decay and transience; the repetitive natural cycle, of birth, life, and death.
A pattern reflected in our human experience, which is why Autumn speaks to the depth dimension of our souls. We are reminded of this in the pathos of singer Eva Cassidy’s song, ‘Autumn Leaves’, recorded shortly before her early demise.
The poignancy of what I saw was further accentuated because it occurred during a ceremony to mark Remembrance Day.
This date was originally chosen to celebrate the Armistice ending the First World War; but has since become a rite to remember everyone who has perished during wars.
I’d been asked to conduct this occasion, at a Centre for elderly people, in something of a challenge to my pacifist principles.
But surely, whatever our views on war, in general, and any war in particular, it is still appropriate to remember those who have died in conflicts.
We can also re-commit ourselves to peace and reconciliation, whether at national level, or personally, in our families and neighbourhoods.
Of course, war is not part of any inevitable natural cycle. Rather it is a violent interruption of this regular rhythm, with lives cut short much too soon.
However, Remembrance Day, is also an opportunity, to remember not only the casualties of war, but all those who have died.
In this way, it’s another chance, coming soon afterwards in the calendar, to do what All Soul’s Day does in Catholicism, even though it’s become distorted by Halloween’s US commercialism.
That is, to collectively grieve, while also reflecting on our own mortality, the shortness of our lives; especially in this Centre where I presided, for the old, who must face their own final ending.
But, in our globalised hedonistic culture, surely that is too dour? Doesn’t such talk of death pour cold water on the party?
The Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, in contrast, unites feelings of sadness and celebration, unlike our western dualistic understanding, according to which we can have only one or the other.
This transience of life is celebrated during their Spring festival, where beer is consumed under the cherry blossom, prized not only for its prettiness, but precisely because of its impermanence.
Furthermore there is a Buddhist meditation exercise, involving meditation on one’s own impending death; while the Christian Scriptures exhort us to ‘number our days’. However, we’re like the man, described by idiosyncratic French philosopher Pascal, waiting in his prison cell for his execution, who would rather do anything than contemplate his inevitable fate.
Today we too prefer the divertissements (distractions), of consumerism and media entertainment, to facing our own deaths.
But that means ignoring the only way to wisdom.