Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Reading the tree leaves
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the November 20, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)
The biting temperature change this past week dramatically ended our comfortable autumn season and perhaps provided us with a good lesson in spirituality.
Read the tree leaves. Hanging by tired fingers after a long and marvelous summer, millions of leaves now have lost their grip, taking a colorful plunge to the ground. Whether nature’s tumbling act took place in one fell swoop overnight, or embraced the earth one fluttering leaf at a time, the winds of winter last week made quick work of any lingering dance of God’s glory. The harsh, blustery gusts of the changing seasons put many a homeowner’s raking skills to the test.
Actually, before the weather snapped, I was proud of myself for having beaten the ranging winds at their game. I had raked my lawn already – twice! But in one day, the wind dealt its own wicked hand, blowing my yard full of the neighbor’s tree litter!
While outside raking leaves (unexpectedly, again) I was struck by a childhood memory. Somewhere in my impressionable youth, I had picked up the notion that the death-tumble of autumn’s leaves should remind us of souls winging their way to purgatory. Another version described a countless number of souls plummeting to hell. What produced such a dour image?
The analogy reflects a rather strong preoccupation with sin and a portrayal of God as judgmental – concepts I never could coordinate in my mind with the beauty and unique excitement of autumn. On the other hand, autumn is a rather reflective time of year. It resonates with a certain melancholic tone. And, yes, fall does bring with it apparent signs of death for what was once luscious and green.
The month of November is especially a time laden with signs of nature’s dying. Cold mornings, fogged-in airports, rain and traces of snow, diminishing sunlight. With good pastoral reason the Church has taken advantage of the throes of nature, inviting us to reflect on death and its significance for us. The month began with an opportunity to reflect prayerfully, not about own our personal death, but the departure from our midst of others.
All Saints Day marked a festival in honor of all the faithful departed who now enjoy the fullness of God’s Kingdom. This is indeed the feast of all those who already have their designated square on church calendars. Too, it is the feast of those who would have been canonized by officialdom had better circumstances provided. All Saints Day is the festival of individuals whom each of us has known: moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends and associates – all those who have sought the way of God with a sincere heart during the course of their lives. It is also the feast day for all those whose faith is known to God alone and who, like the recognized, also now enjoy eternal heavenly bliss.
Somehow, I think it is these people who are honored in nature’s glory dance on these frost-bitten mornings. St. John’s Book of Revelation may envision them as white-robed crowds flocking around the throne of the Lamb. But could not the image of bright-colored leaves wafting their way to a final resting place be just as appropriate?
Traditionally, too, November is also the month during which we pray for those we acknowledge as the “poor souls in purgatory.” Only God knows if these souls are as numerous as the scads of leaves which bite the dust this time of year. In fact, only God knows what a post-life state of purgation is – and if there is anyone “there.” All things considered, I would hope that souls under any kind of purgation or cleansing would be far outnumbered by the saints-without-title. Certainly, I would hope (and pray) that the numbers of those who get the flu, have to do their homework, and pull weeds in the garden of heaven (my childhood images of this place of “temporary punishment due to sin”) because of God’s amazing love indeed are small in number.
Fall leads us to think of those who died – especially for those who have been significant and close to our hearts. The Church wisely teaches that it is a “good and wholesome thing to pray for the dead.” But let us not get carried
away with our imagery. I doubt very much if a loving God, who actively seeks out sinners, sits at purgatory’s gate weighing quantities of prayer, pain and sacrifice against the account books of evils committed by suffering souls –
just as I find it difficult to believe that the souls of the dead are like stacks of rotting leaves. The fate of the dead literally is known only to God. We pray for the dead because we need to. These individuals are important to us,
and our hearts still want what is best for them – especially in death. Our hearts will not let these people merely fall to the earth and die. We cling to our faith in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Above all, our
prayer is that God will bring to completion in their lives what was imperfect or incomplete at their death. After all, each and every saint still dies a sinner. God is the giver of life, not us.
Somehow I think the glory dance of autumn’s leaves is God’s subtle way of assuring us that our prayer is answered. Our faith tradition testifies to a God who is the One made flesh – in Jesus of Nazareth, who hounds the sinners, always
calling them to life. Each of us ultimately is accountable before God. We hope that whatever suffering may come our way in and through death will be short-lived because of the loving and merciful hand of God. In any case, in the end
we Christians need not sulk in our loss of loved ones. We need not beg a distant and unconcerned God for a merciful change of sentence. With faith in a promise made and lived in Jesus, we join in the glory dance of the dead,
trusting that God will indeed be faithful and grant them eternal life.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of the parishes in Rosalia and St. John, pastoral administrator of St. Rose in Cheney, and the diocese’s Moderator of the Curia.)
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