Mellow-faced, with eyes of faery, wistful clad in tinted leaves,
See the brown October tarry by the golden rows of sheaves;
Oak & acorn in his garland, fruit & wineskin in his hands,
Mystic pilgrim from a far land down the road to farther lands.
—from “October,” H.P. Lovecraft
September and October have arrived, and with them my favourite season — autumn! In cooler climes, summer is welcome; but here in Los Angeles it means heat — sometimes unbearable; since I am no longer a student, summer vacation no longer brings what relief the season did afford. I shall admit that in recent years I have become more aware of the joys of extremely chilled sauvignon blanc and a good salad on a hot day. Moreover, the summer feasts of Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, Precious Blood, St. John the Baptist, the Assumption and so on become ever dearer as the years roll by — and I do love the fireworks on the 4th, even if my inner Loyalist complains. But given that the season’s heat here in Southern California can extend into October, I am always glad to see it gone.
Spring, for cooler zones, is the time of fresh life, when in succession snowdrops, daffodils, and at last tulips break winter’s dominion on the countryside. Out here (for me anyway) it can be a time of dreading the first heats of summer and savouring the last of the cool. But even when they come early, we have the drama of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost to console us.
Winter itself is — climactically — the best time of year in this part of the world, when the rains turn the barren hills green. But in most of the Northern Hemisphere, there is snow and downright cold, with short days. Nevertheless, the light shines in darkness: St. Nicholas and dear old Christmas illumine our night, followed in rapid succession by New Year’s, Epiphany, Candlemas, and St. Valentine’s Day. Nature may be slumbering, but our spirits are active and alight. The ornaments and evergreens, the holly and mistletoe, the candles and lights, and especially the Nativity Scenes remind us that despite the discomfort and the cold, Heaven is not that far off, and God reached out therefrom to save us.
Much as I love winter, though, autumn is my favourite. I suppose it is because while the winter months and feasts — as with those of spring — offer the clash of opposites, autumn is mellower, more thoughtful. The heat has abated; the cold has not yet come. While we do not usually have out here in SoCal the incredibly beautiful leaves of New England and elsewhere, the sky becomes an impossibly rich blue as the season wears on, and the sunlight turns to a mellow golden sepia tone. You feel at times as though you are in someone else’s memory — especially in those parts of our city built when silent film was King.
In more northerly climes, of course, together with the beautiful leaves, you have the harvest season. Pumpkins, apples, multi-coloured Indian corn, asters, and chrysanthemums are everywhere. Hallowe’en (of which more presently) lends a shiver or two more than the weather might warrant, and the Canadian and American Thanksgivings with their traditional feasts of turkey and the like put one into an introspective frame of mind — of times past and present, of ingathering one’s own personal harvest. In many places, it is also the hunting season, and with or without hounds or horse, one might pursue the quarry as he has his career.
Winter and spring in various ways speak to us of rebirth, and summer of effort and endurance. But autumn is about mortality. Spring is the infancy of the year, summer its strong youth and early manhood, and winter its old age. But autumn is middle age; we have more yesterdays than to-morrows, to be sure — but we still have the energy and will to accomplish a few more things before we are shuffled off this world’s stage to join our fathers. What is true of years and individuals is true also of societies, cultures, and countries: they too appear to have their springs of birth, summers of accomplishment, winters of dotage and death — and autumns of quiet decline. A civilisation in its autumn may expect no Golden Age — but it may hope for one of Silver.
The Church guides us through this mystical, wistful season as she does through all the others — with firm step and confident tread. She has been here almost 2000 times before, and she will be here again when all of us are gone. September she has deemed the month of Our Lady of Sorrows — and we should be mindful of the Blessed Virgin’s dolours especially now. In the Byzantine Rite, September 1 is the feast of the Indiction — the start of their new Liturgical Year. The Copts and Ethiopians begin theirs on September 11, while the other rites file in at different times between now and December 1, including our own Latin Rite with the first Sunday in Advent. Although the civil year may begin on January1, and the fiscal year on May 1, this time of mortality plays host to many New Years.
September 8, for both Latins and Byzantines, is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Angels. In all of our doings, she is no further from us than she was from Our Lord at the manger in Bethlehem, and several feasts of hers during this season remind us of this fact. Her Most Holy Name is commemorated on September 12, in memory of King Jan Sobieski’s relief of the Siege of Vienna in 1683. It was the great King’s greatest victory — and he won it when he was 54, thus reminding us that Middle Age (especially with the Virgin’s help) can still bring triumphs. Michaelmas, with its goose dinners and daisy centre-pieces, is the feast of the great St. Michael the Archangel (in the new calendar, Ss. Gabriel, Raphael, and all the other angels are bundled into it with him; in the traditional calendar the other two have their own feasts). This patron of the Church and the dying, who drove Lucifer out of Heaven with his fiery sword, is a deeply hopeful figure — and one to whom we should especially pray in the strange and uncertain days in which we live.
Now comes October, the Month of the Holy Rosary. The reason for the assignment of this month is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7, commemorating another victory the Queen of Angels granted a Christian army and fleet, commanded by Don Juan of Austria and consecrated to her, over Islam — the Battle of Lepanto. In keeping with the martial and maternal theme, October 21 is the feast of Bl. Emperor Karl of Austria, who was at once a Knight of Christ, a just ruler, a devoted husband (his feast day is actually the date of his wedding to S.G. Zita of Bourbon-Parma — a candidate for beatification in her own right) and father, and zealous devotee of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Heart, and the Blessed Virgin — and whose Heavenly triumph was preceded by almost incredible worldly defeats. October is perhaps the most autumnal month of autumn, as Lovecraft recognised in the poem from which we quoted at the beginning of this article, and which inspired Ray Bradbury’s book title, “the October Country.” Mysterious and strange it is, leading as it does up to Hallowe’en. This latter festival — a mixture of Catholicism and paganry, of old superstition and newly invented Wicca, often gets a bad rap. But seen and used in the proper light — with Trick or Treating once again made into “Souling” by having your children pray for the dead of those who gave them candy, the same children taught the role of the Church in driving off spiritual evil, and, well, giving them a good time, it can be quite a good thing indeed.
Fittingly, given its connexions with the uncanny, Hallowe’en leads us into November, the Month of the Holy Souls. All Saints Day reminds us of all the millions who have preceded us in death, and won Heaven. In the Traditional Latin Rite, the Vespers of All Saints immediately give way to the Vespers of the Dead, the First Vespers of All Souls Day. In many places, people begin visiting cemeteries on All Saints, lighting candles at the graves of their dead, which they also sweep clean. This continues on All Souls, when three Masses can be said for the departed in each church to speed the Holy Souls from Purgatory — and various countries see families descend upon their family plots for picnics and communing a bit with their deceased loved ones. November 3 is the feast of St. Hubert, patron of hunters and one of my personal favourites. In the Byzantine Rite, November 8 is the primary feast of St. Michael, and as guide for the newly deceased, he is in the right place at the right time. During this period, in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — and occasionally in these United States (the American Legion and the VFW each have their own versions) — people wear red poppies (in France they wear blue cornflowers). This commemorates the fallen in the Great War of a century ago, inspired by the poem of Canadian soldier John McCrae, which tells us that — “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row.” The orgy of recollection in ceremony and observance reaches a crescendo on November 11, the day World War I ended, with the Two Minutes Silence. But whether called Armistice, Remembrance, or Veteran’s Day, it honours “the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame” of the conflict, which as Eric Bogle further reminds us, has “happened again, and again, and again, and again, and again.” But the 11th is also Martinmas, the feast of St. Martin. A great soldier, monk, and bishop successively himself, he is one of Europe’s best loved saints. Honoured with goose and patron of wine, he is also venerated by children in the central part of the Mother Continent, who troop through the night of his feast, candle-lit lanterns in hand. In the new calendar, the last Sunday of the Church Year is the feast of Christ the King (it is the last Sunday in October in the traditional calendar — I celebrate both days because I cannot get enough of it!). And so the Church’s year and the autumn alike are closed out with an affirmation that despite all we see around us, Christ is King of time as well as space; of years, and countries, and of us as individuals.
So with what thoughts does this contemplation of autumn leave us? Our lives are strange mixtures of leisure and effort, of triumph and defeat, of happiness and bereavement. From the moment of our birth, our life is hurrying to its close. But we stand on the foundations that our fathers left us, and build new ones for our sons to build upon as they will or can — and we do so almost blindly. Beset as we are by the world, the flesh, and the devil, we have the company and aid of Our Lady, the Angels, Saints, and Holy Souls, all of us fighting together under the banner and by the command of Christ Our King. Whether we triumph in an earthly sense as did King Jan Sobieski and Don Juan, or suffer apparent defeat like Emperor Karl, so long as we struggle loyally we shall as we begin our personal winters, see afar off the light of Heaven, even as the Advent liturgy begins to warn us of the rise of the Star of Bethlehem.