Beauty, Memory, & Grace – The gift of Autumn

Fall colors hit our neighborhood this weekend.

It is hard not to think about or notice beauty this time of year, as the world blushes its way toward winter’s oblivion. We were walking a trail near the river this weekend, the boys and the dog and me, and my youngest, Simon Henri, breathing deep in a fit of earnestness exclaimed, “I just love the smell of fall. The air smells like leaves.” And, we all stopped for a moment, and breathed deep with him, savoring the sweetness of the moment and the scent of autumn on the breeze. He was right, it was beautiful. But the beauty of fall is bittersweet and tinged with melancholy. I couldn’t help thinking in that moment about loss, about the summer past, the hardships of this year, the things we’ve sacrificed and the things, and places, and people we’ve been forced to let go. 

In her exquisitely written novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s main character John Ames shares his memories and wisdom from his and his forebears’ lives in ministry. He writes this cumulative remembrance to his own son. In it, Ames wrestles with notions of faithfulness and goodness, how to live his piety in a complex world. It is an account too of both beauty and grace. Ames says, 

“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness… It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment…even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.” 

Yesterday the golden ash leaves fell in the back yard in a continuous and steady flurry as autumn’s winds shook the neighbor’s tree. The tomatoes in the garden were laying ripe and warm on the vine thanks to this stretch of sunny September days, and I picked enough to fill a colander. As they stewed on the stove I recalled planting the starts in the ground with hopes for moments just such as this playing in my mind. Ames is right, memory, the ability to return to a moment, is a kind of grace. And, we all need grace right now. 

As we round this corner from summer into fall, as the pandemic stretches out into a winter full of Zoom meetings and virtual community, as the nation braces itself for a contentious election, we are all in need of a little grace. For me grace is found in these small moments of ordinary beauty. So too, grace for me is found in the memories of a good meal, a sunny day, of funny accidents and chance meetings. I found myself this weekend browsing back over an album of photos from the past 5 or 6 years at Saint John’s of events and celebrations and ordinary days in between, and found myself first wistful and then grateful. To glance backward over the gift that this community is to me and to so many, to bring into the present the joy of those past moments, to see how God has enriched our lives and, more importantly, blessed the world through our life as a faith community, was a real grace. It made me wonder, what are you grateful for in this moment? What memories have returned to you of late that prompted joy and gratitude? Where do you see beauty today?

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