Falling Leaves & Acorns

Death may come quietly, like the falling leaf, or it may come loud and jolting

Nat King Cole sang about “the falling leaves [that] drift by the window/the autumn leaves of red and gold.” Drifting autumn leaves suggest a quiet, peaceful sweep outside one’s casement. Last weekend was anything but.

Fall was at its peak in Virginia and Saturday was a gloriously sunny day. As night fell — Hunter’s Moon — the wind picked up and, overnight, there were a few moments of light rain. The old oak tree (it’s old — its girth is wider than mine) outside my window pane shed many of its acorns that night. As it also towers over where cars are parked, the silent sweep of leaves was punctuated by several bangs as acorns hit the metal car roofs.

Autumn leaves are attractive. They’re the stuff of poetry. They’re also dead.

The reason leaves on deciduous trees change colors is the blockage of fluid circulation in them, brought on by longer nights. Sugars and other chemicals are released. They change color and then die. That doesn’t make them any less pretty. But it’s a fact.

Many years ago I was struck by an observation St. Josemaría Escrivá made in The Way [see here], a wonderful collection of short, pithy aphorisms that provide rich material for meditation. Writing about the Last Things, the saint drew a connection to autumn:

Have you seen the dead leaves fall in the sad autumn twilight? Thus souls fall each day into eternity. One day, the falling leaf will be you (736).

As I watched and listened last night, the dying leaves of autumn swept by my window, not unlike how the Grim Reaper everyday quietly rakes human leaves into eternity. Death may come quietly, the expected end of a long life in the autumn of its years. Or it may come loud, unexpected, and jolting — like the acorn stripped off the tree, hitting the car roof: momentarily loud and then gone. Either one should be grist for meditation as the year declines, as autumn leaves and acorns begin to fall.

In the first few days of November, repair to a cemetery to pray for the faithful departed. In the first octave of November, Catholics can earn a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for the faithful departed. But, while there, also take a look around you. There are probably some trees shedding their last foliage, and there are few places quieter than a cemetery to even see their swoosh through the air. Just as souls make their way through death to this place — this sacramental place where their bodies await Resurrection — and to the judgment seat of God.

When I was a child, we’d often take my aunt on Sundays to the cemetery where my uncle was buried. The paths were lined with oaks that prodigiously scattered their acorns all around. As a kid, I grew up with two horse chestnut trees in front of my house, so collecting “tree seeds” was my thing and, in November, I often remember coming home from St. Gertrude’s with a jar of acorns I picked up — acorns that, perhaps the previous night, hit the ground with a momentary thud. But do they make a sound if there’s no one there to hear them? Or do some souls perhaps hear them as reminders of their own coming to that place?

November is about prayer for the faithful departed, but it’s also about memento mori, remembering that — like taxes (but without 80,000 additional IRS agents) — no one evades death.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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