November, autumn. Plants and animals prepare for their winter slumber but before the first snows, the trees proclaim a final hurrah with a show of fiery reds to thrill our hearts and warm our souls.
Speaking of souls, November 2nd is All Souls Day. It is the day we dedicate to praying for the souls of our relatives and friends who are in Purgatory. Let’s pray for them all of November and through the year.
How strange that our modern, industrialised world ignores the change of seasons and the cycle of life and death! We see it all around us, in nature and in our own bodies. Indeed, autumn has inspired so many poets. Death isn’t a subject that they avoid.
Here is Sonnet 73 (That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold) by William Shakespeare:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I love autumn. It is my favourite season. The chill in the air, the changing colour of the leaves, the low sun, the gentle hues of the autumn sky hinting of frosts to come, cozy evenings spent indoors with loved ones, a glass of wine and a book of ghost stories (preferably M.R. James’s compilation of very scary ghost stories), thick socks and a wool blanket, dusk that falls at five o’clock, dried leaves, russet and gold thick on footpaths and river banks . . .
Autumn reminds us of the cycle of life . . . and death. Catholics meditate on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. No one escapes divine justice. What you do on earth will be judged, and your final destination, heaven or hell, depends upon the state of your soul upon your death. There’s purgatory – a mid-station to heaven – and All Souls Day is the day we devote to praying for the souls in purgatory.
When I was a practicing Buddhist (before I came back to the Catholic Church), I was informed by various Buddhist masters that, in the old days, Buddhist monks used to meditate in charnel grounds (places where dead bodies would be left to be devoured by vultures) so that they would understand that death is all around us, that no one escapes it, that they must not cling to the things of this world, and that by not clinging, they can attain Nirvana. Buddhists don’t meditate in charnel grounds anymore, but they do meditate on the decay of the body, focusing their attention primarily on how disgusting the body is, to force their minds to let go of earthly attachments. Buddhists also believe that actions in this life will determine where one will be reborn (realm of the gods, hell realms, animal realms, earthly realm). Those who attain Nirvana in this life will not have to go through the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Catholics meditate on death as well, but in addition, they meditate on judgement, heaven and hell. No one gets away with anything! Whatever you do will come back to haunt you.
In later posts, I will discuss the Last Judgement.