Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning
you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father's Palace;
and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys.
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations
This autumn, after an awful summer drought, the trees blazed in lustrous shades of red and orange, but the flames on their many-branched candelabras were short-lived. Heavy rains snuffed them out and cold winds sent the leaves in trembling flocks to an early earthen rest.
The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.
Robert Frost, "The Hardwood Groves"
One November morning, I was perched in a posture of prayer, as at a kneeling rail, on the second-story hall balcony that overlooks the great room of our new home in Culpeper, Virginia. Out the palladium window, my eyes followed a mowed path from the unfinished patio down the terraced perennial beds, in which waved gay plumes of ornamental grass and dried bouquets of goldenrod, on through the vegetable garden, haunted by shriveled vines and skeleton stalks, into the meadow, amber this time of year, and out toward the grey scarf of trees and briar thicket that hugs Hungry Run.
The sun rode low in the eastern sky, just high enough to illumine the wooded hillside and pasture on the other side of the stream. The bare trees rose to a steeple on the high hill. Their straight trunks and arching branches resembled the great spines and fanned vaulting of a gothic cathedral. And the light, as in a Byzantine icon, mysteriously seemed to come from no external source but to be emitted from inside temple walls.
I missed this scene last fall. While our home was being built, I dug in dozens of shrubs and perennials and hundreds of spring bulbs on the backyard slope. But I worked late in the day, at sunset, when shadows shrouded the wood and pasture. June and I moved in on Holy Week. The daffodils I planted were spilling down the bank out back like yellow paint from a tipped-over bucket. Maple trees were releasing their clenched fists and drawing a sylvan veil across the temple sanctuary.
In late November, the whole Blue Ridge is transfigured. As the leaves drop from the trees, the veil is lifted and once-dark places are revealed. Through newly transparent temples, saints and sinners see secret earthen sanctuaries with stone altars that seem to have grown from out of the ground. When Jesus flesh was pierced and He died on the accursed Tree, the earth opened, the curtain of the Temple tore, and the Holy of Holies was shown.
As November ends, Advent begins and the great Epiphany draws near. The naked babe, blanketed in supernal light, is the Holy of Holies, open to ordinary eyes. St. Ephrem the Syrian says that
Is the treasure store of all things:
Upon each according to his capacity
He bestows a glimpse
Of the beauty of his hiddenness,
of the splendor of His majesty.
Hymns on Paradise 9:25
Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph, following Jewish tradition, take the Child to the Temple where He is blessed by prophet and prophetess and named the Most High. (In the Christian East this is celebrated in February as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, sometimes called Candlemas in the West.) The tiny body that old Simeon holds in his gnarled hands is the same that John the Baptist bathes in the River Jordan. With Him, the whole of Creation is cleansed. In Him, Paradise is restored. An Armenian Epiphany hymn proclaims:
By the Spirit's descent in the form of a dove
Cleansing power was given to the holy waters...
The Creator of heaven and earth
Appeared as God and man in Jordan's streams:
By His flesh intermixed with God
He washed the universe from sin.
I have heard the authorities' explanations of why Christians celebrate Jesus' birth and baptism at this time of the year--winter solstice, pagan festivals, and so on. But nature supplies her own reasons. Changes in her seasons portend the Great Epiphany. The cold autumn rains, the grey austerity of winter woodscape, the pearl purity of December snowfall, awaken a profound yearning within me for the birth of Paradise, that, I know, God will not disappoint.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow.
Robert Frost, "My November Guest"
On a sun-filled December morning, I carried hand trowel and rake out to the northwest corner of the yard where an old fence of weathered cedar and rusted barbed wire separates field from forest. On its far side, a broad woodland path wends two hundred paces down to Hungry Run. I cleared away patches of gooseberry briar and brush. Then I planted drifts of white narcissus and blue Siberian squill deep in the ground. I am waiting for April, when they will rise and light my way like foot lanterns that line the aisles of a darkened theater before the show begins.
All summer long a leafed canopy shut out the sun and made this path safe and secluded. It was the kind of place where children might play hide and seek or Adam and Eve conceal themselves from God. At the close of this day, however, it was I who ambled down it, all soiled and weary in my middle years, playing a timeless gardener's game, imagining the beauty there would be in spring when the flowers bloomed. As I reached its end, I felt as if I had entered a house of light, with its roof the dome of the sky, the swollen spring waters of Hungry Run coursing through it like a silver thread. What does St. John write?
But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple. . . And he showed me a pure river of water, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. [And] in the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life. . . . There shall be no more night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. Revelation 12:22; 22:1-2, 5 NKJV
The light of these short winter days is almost material, like the thick smoke of incense; watery, like summer moonbeams. I was washed in it, drowned in it. I forgot my gardener's dream. And for one mystical moment I was old Simeon, stripped of age and weakness, refreshed by clean water, blown like a leaf that dances on a gust of wind, lifted on cherubs' wings, gripped with yearning, propelled by hope, spirited by joy into the temple.
Today You came into the Temple
and the elder received you into his arms and said:
"Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, O Master."
Christ our God!
Today you appeared to the world as light
and to the universe as salvation.
Save us, O Lover of man.
Armenian hymn for the Presentation of the Lord
Dr. Vigen Guroian is a noted theologian and professor and the author of six books, including Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening and Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination.
Copyright © 2003, reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-7500.
This article can be found on the BreakPoint website.