On Leaves and Martyrs and the Glory of God

Here in rural New England, we are blessed to be surrounded this time of year with something I did not grow up with in Louisiana: fall color. The varied hues of reds, oranges, and yellows, dazzle the eye, while the sweet smell of the fallen leaves lends an accompanying olfactory sensation that has its own charm.

Taken along with the shortening of the days that rapidly accelerates this time of year, the total experience is pleasantly melancholy.

That mood is appropriate when we consider that the attraction of the New England fall comes from the loveliness of leaves slowly dying. Like the proverbial swan song, it is an aesthetic experience standing at the intersection of beauty and death. Eventually, the trees will be bare — all but the evergreens which do not change color — and the coming winter landscape will, at least among the leafless tress and shrubs, have the look of cold death. Then, the white snow that covers the ground and clings to roofs and branches will provide its own sort of wintry mystique.

On the feast of Saint Ursula and Companions, virgins and martyrs, while driving back to our campus from Holy Mass, I was struck by just how beautiful these leaves are. It dawned on me — I’m sure quite unoriginally — how much this leafy Nunc dimittis has to teach us. The words, Pretiósa in conspéctu Dómini mors Sanctórum eius, came to mind — “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 115:15). They are daily sung in the office of Prime, just after the chanting of the Roman Martyrology for the next day.

We were created, as was the entire universe, for God’s glory. This is no mere “nice thought”; it is Catholic dogma (Vatican I, Session 3, Canon 5). Says the Apostle, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Our death is included in that “whatever else [we] do,” and it, like the deaths of all the martyrs the Church celebrates, should glorify God. It should be precious in His sight.

God probably does not care an awful lot about leaves. Comparatively speaking, He cannot. These things have vestiges of His Majesty but are not in His image and likeness as are we men. Sparrows, being sentient beings, are further up the hierarchy of being from vegetative life, but even these remarkable creatures are not the center of God’s concern on this earth. That said, as we are assured by Truth Himself, not one of these tiny birds falls to the ground without our Father knowing it. A person — a being who will live forever — is of much greater consequence in the divine scheme of things, which was exactly Our Lord’s point in mentioning sparrows in Matthew 10.

The beauties of nature — of inanimate things, living things, and, yes, dying things — were made for God’s glory and also for our contemplative instruction, which, if we use it rightly, will augment God’s glory. We should be as beautiful, as precious, in death as are the autumn leaves — only more so. Each utterly unique leaf will decompose never to rise again, while other leaves will come to replace them in spring. This is but an image of something far greater that will happen in us, for we look ahead to the promise of a new springtime when we ourselves will rise again in eodem corpore — in the same body — and all will be bright and living again. Liturgically, green, the color of spring, is the color of hope.

Is it any wonder that what the Roman Martyrology calls, “the solemnity of solemnities and our Pasch,” always happens in spring? (Given the formula for determining Easter that we have received from the Council of Nicaea, Easter must always come after the vernal equinox.) Christ’s Resurrection is the cause, the type, and the pledge of our own.

Meantime, we who are blessed to have autumn color where we live should avail ourselves of this gift of the the divine Wisdom, which, in this last part of the Church’s year, unites the testimony of nature to that of the Church’s liturgy to direct our attention to the Last Things.