Originally published at Covenant, November 24, 2015.
Oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject of time’s sanctification according to the Church’s calendar, and, certainly, conforming one’s life to the calendar, observing feasts and fasts and seasons, affords numerous opportunities to engage with and marinate in the central figures and mysteries of our faith. We are coming now to Advent, and vestments and hangings will transition, like sweetgum leaves, from summer greens to expectant violets. A decorous austerity, not as severe as that of Lent, will pervade the church and the lections will portend the swift approach of something baleful, until the cold silence of Christmas Eve is barely broken by the first breaths of a newborn child, and we are left wondering, “Was the triumphant answer to be this?” (Auden).
For me, as much as anything, dove season marks the hinge between summer and winter, the beginning of the end of the year. Not that my part of the South has much of a winter — certainly not, as Archibald Rutledge said, “the lilies and the snow and the wintry starlight of mystic love and devotion” that characterize Puritan New England. But dove season invariably begins, on September 1, with the exhausted heat of late summer lying thick in the afternoons, and ends just as invariably with the jet stream’s first chilly intrusions into the nights and mornings of late October.
As November rolls along the leaves begin to tinge, in proportion to the year’s moisture, and drop. To be sure, the changes are more languid and subtle here. The blood-red urgency of the maple is a rarity, the festal gold of the aspen entirely unknown. But the somnolent cold creeps through our fragile-leafed buckeyes, and in late November native pecans seem to greet it punctually but without haste, the dogged cedar elms and cottonwoods following suit in due course, stretching and yawning in browns and muted golds. No one seems to be in a particular hurry.
The experience of these expected disorientations during the first breaths of winter is a perennial weirdness to me. But there is a proportionality to it, increasingly it would seem, as time rolls on. There is a restless anxiety at every level of the world. What is this forgetful slumber overtaking everything? What is happening to the trees? Where are the shorebirds going? The dismantling of the West’s cultural waypoints is making it hard to navigate. What will the new year bring? As Nietzsche’s madman asked an uncomprehending crowd: Has it not grown colder?
Pope Benedict noted in the encyclical Caritas In Veritate:
Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable …. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence.
Benedict was thinking of how phenomena like war, or the moral deterioration of human greed, can devastate the environment. René Girard has noted that with the advent of nuclear weapons and industrial pollution, the 20th century has rendered Scripture’s most fantastic apocalyptic texts suddenly credible. But the causality runs in both directions. Consider how droughts or storms can generate immense human suffering. There is a nexus of interpenetrating causes and effects running between nature and culture, and the deepest strata of connection are, I am convinced, beyond discernment.
I greeted radical Islam’s latest barbarism with a weariness out of all proportion to the enormity of it. How can these global dissensions be resolved? How has it come about that every option is a bad one, that every path leads deeper into the thicket of universal violence? Even Andrew White, the “vicar of Baghdad,” a man of peace, now says, “The only answer is to radically destroy them.” The only answer… How starkly those words resound. Has it not grown colder?
Our faith teaches that mankind will eventually wrap himself up so tightly in his deteriorations that the only possible resolution will be on a cosmic scale, with unprecedented anguish. There is a counterintuitive reassurance in this consonance with the demands of justice, and in knowing that there is an intelligence comprehending the whole. Whatever birth pangs the world must endure, whatever passionate intensities are evinced by the worst (Yeats), time yet runs toward a great nativity. I remember Cardinal Newman:
Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.