By Caroline McReynolds-Adams
It is hard to believe that August is upon us. Summer is on its way out making room for new beginnings. School is starting back up, vacations are over, and most of us return to the more consistent, stable (albeit often busier) lifestyle that we left behind in May. This is not a new year, but it is a new season, and whether are not you are going back to school, starting a new job, or settling into a new lifestyle, we all at every moment of our lives experience some kind of ending and some kind of beginning. What are you in the process of leaving behind? In what way are you looking to start anew?
Always we begin again—it was Saint Benedict who said these words as the foundation for his monastic Rule in the 4th century. This phrase was and is revolutionary in that it acknowledges the spiritual life to be an ongoing process rather than an isolated destination. The belief that “always we begin again” is innately encouraging—we never have to feel stuck in a specific season of our lives. There is always the opportunity and undeniable necessity for rebirth. However these words are also deeply challenging—just when we think we are comfortable, just when we have things figured out, seasons shift and we once again lose control. Change can certainly be just as terrifying and painful as it is transformative and refreshing. True beginnings, the ones worth having, are experiences of both joy and pain, transformation and loss, much like the ebb and flow of our spiritual lives.
The life of the ancient Gingko tree offers a stunning lesson on new beginnings. Throughout the fall, the Gingko tree changes colors from green to yellow much like others in the autumn landscape. However, rather than its leaves gradually falling to the ground like most trees, the Gingko releases them all at once, usually in late November. This release is called “the consent,” and, while few are privy to having witnessed the fleeting moment in which this tree sheds its leaves, passerby’s will know when it has occurred—one day, the tree is shimmering with thousands of golden leaves and the next its limbs are bare and empty, ready for the next season.
Poet Howard Nemerov ponders the meaning of this event in his poem, “The Consent”:
Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
What signal from the stars? What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender? and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time.
If a star at any time may tell us: Now.
Perhaps, like the Gingko, the work of our lives it to be attentive to the seasons’ shifting, the gentle beckoning of that still, soft voice inviting us onward. And, knowing that new beginnings are a beautiful, terrifying gift, might we all be able to join hands and in this season, in this time, and answer, “Yes, now.”
Caroline Adams is an Assistant Director of Education, Programming and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center. She works primarily with Spiritual Formation programming which includes programs such as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers and All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, and the Laskey Gallery. She holds a Masters of Divinity and a Certificate in Religion and the Arts in Contemporary Culture from Vanderbilt Divinity School.