As winter approaches, nights are longer and days are shorter, colder, and darker. In late October the leaves begin to fall. In the perennial border, leaves and stems begin to die back. The grass turns yellowish green before going brown and dead. Annual plants die completely. Winter is a stripped down time for trees and plants; a time of bareness, a lean time.
It is a lean time in our country and our world right now, and in our lives as well. Times are hard everywhere. Our lives and our world seem to be headed toward winter.
In the church it is a wintry season too. The abuse scandals that have rocked the church in America are now shaking Europe. Here in Maine, as elsewhere, dwindling numbers of priests mean fewer masses, churches merging, and even churches closing. Mass attendance is often down, people seem to drift away to other faiths, or to no faith at all. Even in the church, winter is approaching.
Yet winter in the natural world does not mean the end of life. While we need to be prepared for it, it is not in itself something to be feared and dreaded.
In the natural world of God’s creation, plants and trees simply let go of all that is unnecessary. Even as vegetation adapts to the changing seasons, so we too need to learn to adapt.
Through photosynthesis, leaves and green growing things are the source of all life on this planet. Yet when winter approaches, they change color, let go and die. Trees let go of those same leaves that once provided them with life in order to survive through the cold months ahead. Flowers and grasses die off, right down to the ground. But the roots are digging deep, alive and well underground, waiting for springtime’s sun and warmth to send up new growth.
Could there be a lesson for us here? Can we let go as the leaves do?
It is so hard for us to let go! It seems such a negative thing, such a hard thing. Yet if the trees didn’t let go of their leaves, they wouldn’t survive the winter. When we lived a bit farther north in Maine, we once had a few inches of snow early in October. Trees and branches, still in full leaf, came crashing down. They couldn’t carry the burden of snow on their leaves. As with the trees, so with us: letting go can be a positive thing, an important and necessary thing.
Letting go is sometimes known as renunciation. It has two different aspects, one positive and energetic, and the other more receptive. In the active mode, we work at the discipline of letting go. This can include the traditional ascetic discipline of fasting, a way of letting go of either quality or quantity in food.
But there are other, more subtle forms of letting go as well. For example, we might ask ourselves these questions:
Can we let go of our need to always be right?
Can we let go of our need to look good?
Can we let go of the way things always were, or the way we wish things were, and accept that which actually is?
Can we let go of our anger and impatience? Or our need to criticize? Even our need to criticize ourselves!
From a more positive perspective, we might ask ourselves, ‘Can we practice restraint?’
Can we restrain our anger, our criticism, our need to be right, or to look good, or to want things to be different? These are all vitally important but often overlooked practices of renunciation.
The other side of letting go is receptive rather than active. When things happen to us, especially change of any sort, are we able to roll with it? Can we allow changes to happen, especially changes over which we have no control. This is especially difficult when the changes happen to people or institutions that we love very much! Changes, for instance, in our schools or towns or churches. Here it is very important to differentiate between the superficial changes (such as the clustering of the churches) and the depths of our faith.
Sometimes there is not nearly as much change as we wish, and we need to let go of our need for greater, quicker, more profound change.
From either side of this issue, there is often a call to let go: of the old ways, or of our own personal vision of the future.
This leaves us with yet another very important question. We need to ask ourselves when it is right to let go, and when we should hold on. After all, the trees gracefully let go of their leaves in late autumn – but they hold on tight to trunks and branches and twigs! We need to let go when and as God wishes.
And here’s a final important point. We let go only when it is time. This is what happens in nature: the days shorten and grow colder, the light fails. All of this signals the leaves that it is time to go. So also in our lives. Sometimes we can’t let go until suddenly, finally, it is God’s time and we are released from whatever we have been holding so tightly.
As winter approaches, let us ask God to help us let go of all that binds us and of all that keeps us from God and from each other. With liberated hearts we can then enter into Advent and Christmas to give praise to the Christ child for his great and loving mercy. In spaciousness and freedom we can then embrace ourselves, one another, and all of creation with the blessed warmth of God’s own love.