In the autumn of 1820, the poet John Keats wrote what would be his final letter to a close friend. In very poor health though seemingly good spirits, Keats closed the letter with one of his most memorable lines: “I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow”.
As fall appeared in its splendor, I took a retreat with two friends to a cabin in the mountains. This has become a tradition during my time in seminary: to take a few days each semester, clear my head, focus on studies and take hiking breaks with kindred spirits. Upon arrival I took my place on the cabin porch and became immersed in writing an exegesis paper. The view from the porch contained a small yard stretching towards a lone picnic table beside a lake, the whole scene littered with a mixture of red maple leaves and golden oak. My greatest distraction for the afternoon was the urge to lose myself staring into the foliage of the backyard. These days I find myself staring, perhaps to frequently, at leaves dying on their branches.
Because I cannot forget that, for leaves, the color of fall foliage is an event that is far from joyous. The shedding of leaves is a survival mechanism of trees, an essential part of the life cycle. On an individual scale, autumn’s color is the dying cry of collected leaves, their unified, final plea for help as the flow of chlorophyll comes to a halt and they react with gasps of color. Eventually, when the cycle has completed itself, the final life evaporates from its helpless state and it dances to the ground. If leaves feel pain, then autumn must be the most tortuous time of year, a torture that is expressed with the brilliance that people drive from miles around to photograph and gaze upon in awe. Nowhere has torture been so beautiful, except on the cross.
There is a lot of talk in theological circles of the will of man. As I took a break from writing on the porch and pushed a canoe onto the lake, I could not help but ponder this discussion. Floating upon the water’s surface, which was also blanketed with dead leaves, I had to wonder if the paddle in my hand was a metaphor for all the decisions I make or if a stagnate lake with dying leaves was more apt to fit the bill of cosmic narrative.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who was visiting my seminary in hopes of one day attending. When he asked me how I liked being here, I answered quite instinctively: “there’s no place I’d rather be and not be at the same time”. There are few things I mean more sincerely. Wanderlust invades every moment of my day. Most of the time I awaken in gratitude, thankful for seminary and a calling and these thoughts continue up to the moment I take a break to scan job postings and see if I might find a way out. Yet I remain. Maybe there’s something about dying unto oneself that is so terribly beautiful and essential to a preordained structure that it cannot be resisted, even by the most obstinate of wills.
Still I am left wondering where to find peace amidst purpose, or if I should bother at all; maybe that’s just missing the point. There’s a candle on my desk that I light every time I begin writing. Sometimes I lose myself in its flame as if fulfilling one’s purpose while dying to that purpose couldn’t have a more vivid metaphor.
I do not know enough concerning John Keats to declare whether or not his bow was worthy of his calling; at any rate such a thing is not mine to judge. But I am haunted by the final words of a man on the verge of a young and untimely death. I am haunted by the prospect that all of my greatest efforts cannot make my final bow any less awkward, except for a thankful submission to the cycle of divine will.
So I look out the window of a cabin in the middle of the woods, out past a burning candle and stack of commentaries, and my gaze falls upon a lake veiled with the remnants of spring and summer. I am drawn into the cycle of the cosmos outside myself, of a lake that is awaiting the first freeze, of trees that shed and die and a world that exists in a dance of dying unto itself, a dance that ends with beautiful bows. My eyes return to my desk and I continue to pen my own role in this dance as a soft breeze rustles through the woods and another leaf drifts onto the water.