Psalm 90:10

The days of our life are seventy years,

    or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

even then their span is only toil and trouble;

    they are soon gone, and we fly away.

This October marks ten years since I lost one of my good college friends who died tragically from a car accident while just beginning his post-collegiate life. As my friends and I traveled to the state of New York to honor our friend Jon at his funeral, our immense grief was accompanied in a seemingly paradoxical manner by the serene beauty and splendor of the New England fall landscape. This experience would forever etch in my mind a definitive connection between fall and the reality of our human fragility and death.

I deeply appreciate St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body and its way of calling our attention to the spiritual significance interwoven within the natural material world. It is indeed a peculiar mystery that God has designed something in nature, namely, the leaves on deciduous trees, to become resplendent with color right before falling to the ground and dying. It is as if God is awakening us to an incredible mystery of some close association between beauty and death. What are we to make of this paradox?

Imagine some ancestral tribe first experiencing the fall season and gazing upon the beauty of the newly changed trees donning their brilliant colors of red and gold. It might be easy for these primitive humans to believe that the trees must possess some immanent “divine” power and that their brilliant colors are manifestations of new life and vigor.

And certainly, we would be inclined to judge such people as naïve and silly on account of their ignorance of the impending “death” of winter that will bring an inevitable and swift end to the trees’ glorious foliage.  

Yet, it seems that this same propensity to idolize the beauty of fall is present in its way within our current society. Namely, while death is one of the most basic facts of our human existence, consider how easy it is to deceive ourselves into believing that we are immortal.

Our society is obsessed with the beauty found in youthfulness and is addicted to the goods and pleasures enjoyed in this life. We shun signs of aging and hide our gray hair or wrinkles. We spend our money on frivolous goods and pursuits. And we are quick to safeguard our physical health, yet perhaps are not so eager to cultivate our relationship with God, to take up our cross daily, and attend to regular prayer or reception of the sacraments.

If we are to be attendant to wisdom, we must then glean the first lesson of the fall season: memento mori – “Remember [your] death!” As the psalmist reminds us, the time of our life is fleeting. If we fail to remember this truth, we are prone to waste the gift of our life. Only recognizing our forthcoming death can provide us the necessary focus to rightly structure our priorities and values in life.

Let’s return to our primitive humans. Imagine how now, to their great surprise and horror, they find that the “godlike” trees, rather than being filled with strength and vigor, have become greatly weakened. 

It takes only a light breeze to strip away the trees’ decorated foliage. The once magnificent leaves then fall to the ground and die. As the cold grip of winter sets in, the trees appear entirely dead and lifeless.

What might our primitive humans conclude now? Seeing how a more powerful force overcame their godlike trees – the “god of winter and death” – they would be inclined to view autumn merely as a deception. The brilliant colors would be seen only as an alarm or herald of the impending death and darkness to come.

Like these primitives, many of us today are tempted to view death as the end and despair. However, while autumn rightly warns us of the impending winter, the Christian’s reflection of memento mori should never lead to nihilistic despair or goth-like obsession with death and darkness. 

Our knowledge of the seasons makes us privy to the truth that appearances are often misleading. The winter is not eternal – As it slowly fades away, signs of new life appear. The trees will bud again with new life. After winter, the spring arrives, and the tree that appeared dead is seen again alive with renewed vitality and growth!

Here then, we come full circle. Memento mori is essential for the Christian. However, this meditation must be put together to understand that bodily death is not the final end. Rather, Christ’s death and resurrection reveal the Good News – that God’s power is infinitely greater than death. The winter will end, and the eternal springtime of Heaven awaits those who have been faithful in following God’s path.   

As we marvel at the rich fall colors, it is vital to keep these truths in focus. The beauty, pleasure, and joys of this current life are only an imperfect foretaste of the eternal blessedness and beatitude that will be found fully in the Kingdom of God. 

Part of the charm of fall is found in its being a short season. Knowing that the leaves will fall from the trees, we quickly adjust our schedules and make time for a color drive or hike to enjoy the natural beauty. This urgency that comes from the awareness of the season’s brevity should likewise lead us to the truth of another Latin adage: carpe diem (“seize the day!”)

None of us knows the day nor the hour of our death, but we all know that time is short and fleeting. As such, we ought with the greatest urgency to receive each moment God gives us as a profound gift that should never be wasted.  

If we allow the fall season to guide our reflections both towards memento mori and carpe diem, we can then better understand the wisdom of Solomon, who says:

The beauty of the aged is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). 

Even the physical manifestations of aging can be understood as beautiful when one recognizes the full truth of reality. Namely, we are not meant to cling to this present life but to proclaim the new life to come with joyful anticipation. This passing life is a pilgrimage meant to prepare us for eternal communion with God, the angels, and all the saints. For the Christian united to Christ, the darkness and ugliness of death do not have the final say.

We must then pray to acquire the vision of faith and spirit of hope that will equip us to recognize how the beauty and goods of this present life are but an imperfect foretaste of the beatitude and splendor to which God invites us to share with Him for eternity. It is our task to learn to trust in Him so fully that we can let go of our attachments in this world and receive His offer of Love –  the Eternal Springtime of Beatitude in the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come.  

Patrick Gordon writes for TOBET.