I know many people afflicted with seasonal depression. There is something about the air growing chill, the shorter days, the flowers wilting in the cold, and last spring's leaves crunching underfoot that dampens the human spirit. Fall's embrace brings a temporary respite to the beauty of the created world and beckons the deadly cold of winter's ice. The changing of the seasons is a constant reminder of the passing of time. We're all growing older, life is slowly slipping by and the piercing beauties of today will become the faded memories of tomorrow. All of these bring before us the certainty of death, the uncomfortable reminder that we are all going to the grave.
In a day and age which rebels against even the mention or reminder of death, we see only youth and vitality celebrated in movies and on magazine covers. Those suffering old age and illness are hidden away and covered up. Like the changing of seasons, they are unwanted and painful reminders of a life's journey that must reach its end. Yet, a few weeks ago, the Capuchins gathered for the celebration of the Transitus, the passage of St. Francis of Assisi from earthly life to heavenly glory. In an age which loathes even the subtlest suggestion of death, the friars gathered to celebrate the death of their founder and brother!
The friars celebrated the death of St. Francis, because they share his conviction that death is not the end of the story. In fact, Francis did not fear death at all. He welcomed death and embraced it. Carried back to the little chapel of the Portiuncula in the final moments of his life, Francis lay on the stone floor moaning with pain and nearly blind. Yet, in those last moments, he composed a hymn marveling at the Father's love which shone through every facet of the created world. As death laid hold of him, Francis ended the song with these words: “Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death.”
Francis praised God for the gift of death! He called death his sister! Was Francis losing his sanity in those final moments or did he see something we too often miss?
Francis did not fear death because he knew the love of God; he felt this love in his heart; he saw this love revealed all around him, in the sun, the moon, the wind and the water, even in the embrace of death. Francis knew that, ultimately, it was only death's embrace that would bring us finally to the embrace of Christ.
And so death is a gift. Only through death will we too glimpse that vision which “eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and has not dawned upon the mind of man - what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
As we toil through the shorter days and the lengthening shadows this fall and prepare for the icy onslaught of winter, let’s take time to stop and marvel at the beauty of it all. Fall is uniquely beautiful. Winter is uniquely beautiful. And death, too, is uniquely and wonderfully beautiful!