Our question this month is, “Where am I going?” Last week we looked at the ultimate question – where are we going at death? This week, we shift our focus to look at our journey through our years and seasons.
Sister Joan Chittister writes that “life is made up of the turning of the years.” She makes this point in her book entitled “The Liturgical Year”, in which she discusses the meaning and depth of the seasons of one particular year, the Catholic Church’s liturgical year, moving from Advent through Christmas past what they call Ordinary time, to Lent and Easter, through more ordinary time to cycle back to Advent. It’s a particular kind of year, to be sure, in comparison to other types of years we measure – calendar year, fiscal year, academic year. We track time in many different ways.
Sister Joan writes that “every year is a distinct growth point in life, the shedding of another cell of life. Each year brings something unique to us and calls for something different from us.”
There are years to mark every stage of life – childhood, adolescence, adult hood, middle-age, and old age – and all of those periods are unlike the periods before or after them. She asks what in the spiritual life is there to enable us to live all of the other years well, to their fullness, to what Sister Joan calls “the elastic limits of our growing souls?”
Each season is an opportunity to shed, and to grow. We find our seasons are made up of opposites, contractions, expansions, reversals followed by progressions.
I don’t know about you, but I want my life to be a constant march of progress up – better, more abundant, more joyful. Just, more of everything good, and less of anything bad. However, I suspect that, were that to be the case, I would miss out on so much.
That is not the lives we have. As the Stoic Seneca said,
“Reversals, after all, are the means by which nature regulates the visible realm of hers. Clear skies follow cloudy; after the calm comes the storm; day succeeds night; while part of the heavens is in the ascendant, another part is sinking. It is by means of opposites that eternity endures.”
One of the most famous passages quoted in the Hebrew Bible is found in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses one through eight. It teaches:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
We don’t often think that the scriptures would teach us there is a season to kill, to fight, to tear. However, I look at these verses in terms of the opposites. Taking in is followed by releasing, each action is followed by its opposite. Think of breathing in and out, your lungs and heart contracting and expanding. It’s going on right now – opening and closing, beginning and ending. We mourn, we laugh, we embrace, we refrain. These are indeed the seasons of our lives.
Unity minister Ed Townley points out that the creative process that is our lives involves both ends of the spectrum, each set of opposites. We grow spiritually by living both with full awareness of its transitory nature, knowing it will pass and come again.
Our human conditions have in them the seeds of their opposites – you cannot have one without the other. As Seneca wrote, you will die not because you are sick, but because you are alive.
So, what does this mean for us? What truths can the passage of the seasons, the different stages of our lives, help us see?
When we study the world’s enduring faith traditions, we come to see that while all have similarities in many respects each may have been different and instructive emphasis. For example, I’ve heard it said that when we want to learn of ethical living, study Confucianism. When I think of the passage of the seasons of our lives, the meaning behind the changes in our lives as we journey, I look to the Hindu faith tradition for wonderful wisdom and imagery.
Hinduism gives us a wonderful marriage of the divine with our human condition. Instead of saying that all of us, regardless of personality or temperament, must worship the same and believe the same, Hinduism realizes we are different and gives us different paths. Hinduism offers the paths of Raja yoga, or intense meditation, jnana yoga, the path of knowledge, karma yoga, the path of action, and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion.
You approach the divine from where you are, and who you are.
The changing of the seasons, the passage of years gives us chance after chance to realize what is permanent and what is not. We live the changes, but we realize the unchanging. This is not simple or easy – it takes awareness, practice, humility, and clarity. But in the end, your vision opens to the only truth that can bring real peace.
One of the best places to find this truth, and a beautiful articulation of it, is in the Bhagavad-Gita, that classic and wonderful work of Hindu spirituality.
For those unfamiliar with it, the Bhagavad Gita, translated as “Song of the Blessed One”, is one of the most widely revered of the Hindu texts. Its impact east and west has been enormous.
Gandhi said “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad-Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”
Aldous Huxley called the Gita “one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed.”
The Gita is a portion of a much longer poem, the Mahahbharata, the story of war between two clans of a royal family in Northern India, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The hero Arjuna leads the Pandava clan, and the Gita is a dialogue between him and his charioteer, who turns out to be the God Krishna. It takes place on the battlefield of Kuru, at the beginning of the war.
Preparing for battle, Arjuna has his charioteer drive him into the open space between the two warring armies. Overcome with dread and grief at the thought of killing his kinsmen, Arjuna falls to his knees, drops his weapons and refuses to fight.
It is a time for killing, as Ecclesiastes would teach us, and he refuses, asking Krishna:
“What is this crime I am planning, O Krishna? Murder most hateful, murder of brothers! Am I indeed so greedy for greatness?
Rather than this, let the evil children of Dhritarashtra come with their weapons against me in battle; I shall not struggle, I shall not strike them. Now let them kill me. That will be better.”
The next 17 chapters of the Gita are filled with wisdom about the self, love, living and death, nonattachment and necessary action, and what translator Stephen Mitchell calls “the inconceivable depths of reality.” The wisdom it teaches has so much meaning for us as we contemplate the passage of the seasons and our lives, as we look at dark moments, as Arjuna was, at joyful moments, at all the events and circumstances of our lives.
Krishna teaches about the unchanging nature of what is real, and the illusion of all that comes and passes. He says:
Your words are wise, Arjuna, but your sorrow is for nothing. The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead.
There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be.
Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that.
Feelings of heat and cold, pleasure and pain, are caused by the contact of the senses with their objects. They come and they go, never lasted long. You must accept them.
A serene spirit accepts pleasure and pain with even mind, and is unmoved by either. He alone is worthy of immortality.
That which is nonexistent can never come into being, and that which is can never cease to be. Those who have known the inmost Reality know also the nature of is and is not.
That Reality which pervades the universe is indestructible. No one has power to change the changeless.
Krishna reminds Arjuna to see past the forms before him and be aware of what is real – do what he must, but don’t confuse the passing forms with unchanging truth. Brahman, or God, or universal mind, or Allah or Yahweh, whatever name you use, is unchanging.
Ramana Maharshi taught that the point of religion is to help us give up our habit of regarding as real that which is unreal. When we can see with the eyes of the real, and perceive the real, we are finally able to look past the progression of opposites that have seemed to characterize our lives – the ups and downs, victories and defeats, joys and pain.
As we live the seasons, each passage, each moment, each reversal and move forward is another opportunity to learn that what is eternal appears in and underlies all forms and circumstances. The seasons of our lives give us the chance to live the unchanging. Ancient wisdom teaches that we will reach this truth, if we make the journey with awareness, humility and gratitude.
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance