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O Taste and See - Reflections for a changing season
1. O Taste and See
‘If you, like me, suffer from instant nostalgia - mourning the passing of something good, even before it’s fully gone! - then the start of September can be a challenge. As my own kids shuffle back to school this week, a gentle melancholy seems to drop like dew at the prospect of summer's ending.
Not that it’s been a classic, I admit. There’s still a pandemic, we can’t travel far, the weather’s been so hit and miss.
And yet, if I close my eyes, I can summon a host of grateful memories: the welcome sight of swallows, arriving; the scent of roses, sweetening the air on a balmy evening; the taste of fish and chips, warming the soul after a swim in the sea; the drama of watching the Olympics unfold together on TV …
Why not acknowledge the gifts of your own summer, for a few moments, and give thanks for who, and what, has brought you life and rest and joy. Breathe it all in.
The inexorable shift from summer to autumn can feel so mixed, so tinged, like a turning leaf. Yet it’s so rich, too, isn’t it? Especially if we can meet autumn’s imminent arrival with the kind of love we might show an old friend; or with the kindness we’d offer a stranger; or with the reverence we’d reserve for God. After all, how evocative, this season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’, of the Creator’s slow, patient, ripening work within us all.
I have a little Victoria plum tree in my garden that I love to watch throughout the year. I was cheered when bright leaves budded in early spring, and snowy blossom followed shortly after. Over time, tiny green dots swelled into the shape of plums which have now, finally, turned a glowing, dusky pink. And this week, we’ve tried some. First fruits! Heaven on earth.
‘O taste and see that the Lord is good,’ implores the psalmist. I’m so grateful that this same Lord is the Maker of plums, and apples, and blackberries … Tasting is not some dry theological proposition, or an escape into disembodied spirituality, but a sensual encounter of the divine, from deep within their Creation.
It’s an invitation, of course, which requires a response. For me, that will involve simple acts of ‘practice’ to help me taste something more of God within the mysterious, paradoxical wholeness of autumn - within its beauty and loss, its flourish and disintegration, its fruitfulness and emptying branches.
That could mean watching leaves fall, like a lament. Or picking blackberries for a crumble. Or toasting marshmallows like sacrament on a fire-pit with friends. Or stepping outside daily to breathe the air, as a prayer to be inspired by the Creator’s Spirit. Or keeping a gratitude diary, to gather goodness like a harvest.
At the very least, it’s to pause, now, to thank summer, as we bid her farewell; and to prepare for autumn as if God, with ever exquisite taste, has made her for a reason.
2. What matters most?
‘When one season fades and another edges into view, we can find ourselves in quite a state of flux, too. It’s not always easy when the world turns and life shifts away from what we’re used to; it takes adjustment, even to get the kids to school again, or to return to working in an office.
Yet times of transition can also help us to reflect and re-evaluate; to find our bearings, and, if we’re mindful in the moment, to ask ‘What matters most?’ It takes some nerve, but when we do, I’m sure we’re better placed to shift the quality of our changing world for good, instead of being merely at its mercy.
Right now, the obvious transition is from summer to autumn, and personally I hope to bring some of summer’s tranquil energy - ‘He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul …’ - into busier times; perhaps even to be the still waters for others, God willing.
Practically, I’ve loved the nourishment of holiday reading, and the relational blessing of board games, and I want to keep on ... keeping the phone off. I hope you’ve reconnected with soulful rhythms of your own.
But this season of flux resonates, too, with a deeper shift that’s still on-going - the radical disruption that began in our first days of lockdown, and from which the dust has yet to settle. It’s true, the shock of the “Stay at Home!” months may slowly be receding, but we’ve been through so much - from the pain of isolation, distancing and loss, to the happier gains of new ways of connecting, working, living, being - that surely we can’t act as if nothing ever happened deep within our soul.
During lockdown, I asked myself five ‘questions for a time of change’, to reflect periodically on what felt almost impossible to express:
What’s life like, now?
What do I miss, of the old?
What can I welcome, of the new?
What ‘practice' keeps me true (such as prayer, a daily walk, hobby, etc)?
What am I learning, about what matters most?
You may like to take yourself back into your own experience, for a few moments, with one or two of those questions to help.
We may not have answers, even now. But as the poet Rilke believed, it can be enough to live the questions. ‘Live everything’, he said, and the answers will come, in time, through that very act of living.
In the meantime, I’ve realised I can trace a golden thread of truth, woven by God through others into my own experience of the pandemic: for what stays with me, embodied in their many acts of living, their kindnesses, encouragements, creativity … is the very ‘faith, hope and love’ of scripture. I’ve seen it with my eyes, now, and felt it in my heart: ‘these three’ do remain, when all has come, and gone.
And if the greatest of these is love, perhaps all that matters for now, and always, is the love we bring to this turning, shifting season of our life.
3. Holy Ground
‘In last week’s reflection, I raised a question which has stayed with me: Which spiritual practice keeps you true?
‘Practice’ doesn’t have to be religious, but it surely orients us towards God, and I love how the psychologist and Christian contemplative James Finley describes it as ‘any act habitually entered into with our whole heart that takes us to the deeper place’.
So it might be prayer or meditation; but it could also be tending the roses, or having a long, slow walk to no place in particular, or taking a quiet moment at the day's end: any of these habits can ‘re-ground’ us, he says, in ‘the depth dimensions that matter most in our life’.
And what better time, in a sense, to be re-grounded than in the autumn, when the ground plays such a significant part in the season’s depth.
In her poem ‘Fall Song’, Mary Oliver writes of fallen leaves and uneaten fruits ‘unmattering back … underfoot’ into what she calls ‘that black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries’.
Good soil is the site of fertile disintegration (as well as the planting of seeds); and when we stand upon it, surely we stand on holy ground. A ‘deeper place’ in which resides the mystery that nothing of our life which has budded, bloomed and fallen, is ever wasted.
As a practice, we might (for example) try taking off our shoes, like Moses. It’s one thing to skip barefoot across a light-kissed lawn in June, like a child; it’s another to feel the cooling ground of autumn, and to stand with maturing reverence for God’s presence in the fertile darkness below, and deep within us, too.
In autumn, I also like to get outside at twilight, to witness that threshold time between light and dark, and to meet it with love, even if I bring some fear of shorter days and longer nights as well. It’s the equinox next Wednesday (and a full moon, Tuesday!), so it’s an exquisite time to seek for what the Quaker writer Parker Palmer calls ‘a great truth’ hidden in the plain sight of nature. We discover, he notes, that ‘diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of a “hidden wholeness”.’
Such a paradox is never easy to compute with minds that merely work in binary. It’s perhaps deeper within James Finley’s ‘whole heart’ that we’re better placed to yield to the rhythms of ripening and relinquishing, and to sense that we are part of all this wholeness, too.
If we try to deny the diminishments of autumn, don’t we deny something of the mysterious beauty of our own God-given self, too? It undoubtedly takes practice, and we’ll each have our practices to try… but ‘when I give myself over to the endless interplay of darkness and light, falling and rising,’ says Parker Palmer, ‘the life I am given is as real and colorful, fruitful and whole.’
Holy ground, indeed. May it be so.
4. Ode to Autumn
‘When I lead my autumn walking retreats in Winchester, we pause, just outside the city walls, opposite the bay window of a yellow-painted house on College Street. It’s where Jane Austen spent her last few weeks, and where she died (aged 41) in 1817.
We read appreciatively a few autumnal lines from Persuasion, the novel she finished the year before. Autumn, she says, is like ‘the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges’. It makes me smile, just imagining it.
It is, she continues, ‘a season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence … which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.’
And thus, it feels doubly moving to think of the 23-year-old John Keats walking past this very bay window just two years after Jane’s death, and only a year or so before his own, of TB. He lodged in Winchester in the autumn of 1819, and walked every day from the city’s centre, along College Street and to the water-meadows. And along the way, the season did indeed draw from him some ‘lines of feeling’ that became one of his greatest poems, ‘To Autumn’.
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run …
I’m no expert, but I love the richness of his imagery, and the detail and depth he expresses in just three short stanzas - how, for example, autumn conspires here with the sun to ‘load and bless’ the vines with fruit. What abundance to bear witness to - evoking perhaps Psalm 68’s ‘Blessed be the Lord/Who daily loadeth us with benefits’ - even as ‘the gathering swallows twitter in the skies’.
As I stand beneath the flame-red leaves of a cherry tree with my group, we read the poem, listening for words, phrases or images that call to us. But then we give thanks, too, for all the creative people who have enriched, and even changed, our lives, through their art.
You might pause now, to name a few yourself.
It’s the same world we all see, but some people help us to see afresh, and I’m inspired by Keats to look again, with love, at who and what’s before me, this season.
‘Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?’ he writes. ‘Think not of them, thou hast thy music too …’ We yearn, so often, for what is gone. But as the autumn mists roll in, here is an invitation to find harmony with where, and with whom, we are now.
And while we can’t all write great poems in response, we can all have something of yet greater worth drawn from us - by art, by nature, by God - if we’re willing. For we are ‘God’s handiwork’, the apostle Paul says, using the Greek word poeima: creative mastery, God’s poetry. An expression of the divine imagination, whatever that looks like, when it’s expressed, with love, through you.
Brian Draper works as a speaker, retreat guide, labyrinth curator and creative consultant, seeking to help people of all faiths and none to see the world from a creative and engaging spiritual perspective. His books include 'Soulfulness: Deepening the Mindful Life' (2016) and 'Soulful Nature' (2020).