A friend who worked as a hospice nurse once told me that the difference between a good death and a bad death was palpable from the moment she stepped into a patient’s room. When a person had made peace with his mortality–and hopefully with his Maker–death was merely another transition; one final surrender. Yet when fear and remorse caused a person to cling to this life, he usually departed with claws barred to the very end.
Here in the Midwest, it’s a slow surrender of green that gradually gives way to fire. It’s rural highways lined with maples and oaks that burn the horizon crimson and gold. It’s pumpkin farms and cider mills that serve cinnamon donuts hot from the fryer. Yes, if the seasons tell us a story, then Autumn’s promise is there’s life, even joyful celebration, to be found in the act of surrender. Winter may be coming, but we can trust it will not last forever. How could it last forever when the release of summer is this sweet?
Fall is my favorite season, but I admit that I am slow to learn its lessons. Surrendering is not one of my strengths. I’m more of a grasping, striving, clinging-to-control kind of person, especially during times of transition when so much is out of my hands. This year, I am trying to walk into Autumn with open palms. The season of bright colors and strong flavors may be brief, but that’s the way of most transitions–intense at the time, but later on when we look back, we see how much our souls needed the time of upheaval between summer’s reaping and the donning of our winter cocoons.
In my almost thirty-five years on this planet, the longest I’ve ever remained in one place is three years. I’m no stranger to transitions, but they never get any easier. As anyone who has ever moved across the country knows, such a dramatic life change involves a lot of stress and uncertainty, but on the other side of this intensity there is also a desert time where we must wait for the buds of new life to appear. And what happens in between the seasons of vibrancy and hibernation often feels like a little death. As I grieve for “what once was” while waiting for my new life to take shape, I find great comfort in the companions I’ve always turned to in times of transition, from the very first time my belongings were packed into cardboard boxes and hauled someplace new.
But not just any books. When life feels especially out of my control, I don’t want to read small snippets of the human experience–brief escapes into a story that allow me to follow a character’s life for a week, a few months, or even a year. No, when everything is in flux, I find myself turning to lengthy, epic tales that chart the course of an entire life, even several generations. I want to see that brokenness sometimes takes a lifetime to heal, that a word from God may take years to bear fruit, but “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises” (Luke 1:45).
In our impatient, “hit publish now” world, I need this reminder that the best stories often take a long time to write…and even longer to live.
Throughout this recent season of transition, becoming a mother has been, by far, the most all-consuming rite of passage–a beautiful death (to self), indeed. In those early days when it seemed the only thing I did all day was breastfeed (a challenge for someone who places much self-worth in being “productive”), it was Sigrid Undset’s massive, Nobel Prize-winning masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter, that gave me the “long view” I so desperately needed. Set in medieval Norway, this epic trilogy follows the tumultuous life of a willful woman, Kristin Lavransdatter, from cradle to grave. We witness her childhood as the daughter of a distant but faithful mother and a devoted, almost saint-like father. We watch as she wades through the destructive passion of adolescent love, which leads to a difficult (though no less passionate) marriage. We wait with Kristin during a long season of motherhood as she gives birth to seven sons and strives to secure their position in a world of political scandal, where death is always one battle or fever away. Her life is truly a pilgrimage–filled with love and tragedy, joy and sorrow, faith and doubt. Toward the end of the final novel, the widowed Kristin goes on a literal pilgrimage where she experiences the perspective her own story gives the reader:
…it seemed to her that she had come to view her life in a new way: like a person who clambers up to a ridge overlooking his home parish, to a place where he has never been before, and gazes down on his own valley…She had finally come so far that she seemed to be seeing her own life from the uppermost summit of a mountain pass. Now her path led down into the darkening valley, but first she had been allowed to see that in the the solitude of the cloister and in the doorway of death someone was waiting for her who had always seen the lives of people the way villages look from a mountain crest. He had seen sin and sorrow, love and hatred in their hearts, the way the wealthy estates and poor hovels, the bountiful acres and the abandoned wastelands are all borne by the same earth. And he had come down among them, his feet had wandered among the lands, stood in castles and in huts, gathering the sorrows and sins of the rich and the poor, and lifting them high up with him on the cross.”
From her perch on this mountain, Kristin sees human beings a little more like Christ does–as beloved works in progress. And in reading the story of Kristin’s all too human failures–but also her increasing dependence on her Father–I am reminded that times of trouble are not an indication of the Son’s absence, but an invitation to surrender to the cruciform story He longs to tell in our lives. Waiting in the darkness, giving up control, and crying out to heaven create space in our souls for the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to transform and redeem our suffering. Full-life stories that follow characters through summer to autumn, from birth to death, tear us away from our navel-gazing and give us the perspective of the mountain cress. They help us remember that no matter the season we happen to be in,
“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.”
~ Philippians 1:6
The beautiful books in the featured image belong to Walter Hooper – friend, personal secretary, and Literary Executor for the C.S. Lewis Estate. These are in his home in Oxford.