It has been a glorious autumn, with wonderful blue skies, pinky-red sunsets and delightfully mild temperatures. Today is All Saints Day: a major public holiday in Belgium as in many Catholic countries. So what better than to head out into the forest to see the trees in all their autumn glory.
By way of a destination, we chose Tervuren Cemetery. It is the custom on All Saints Day to place chrysanthemums on the graves of relatives. So the normally quiet and stone-grey cemetery is busy with visitors and radiant with purple, red, white and golden blooms.
The leaves in the beech forest are turning from green to yellow to orange to deep red. The tall trees are a reminder of the powerful currents of change in the natural world. The leaves are changing: in fact they are dying and will soon fall from the trees in death. For each autumn the natural world enacts this awesome drama of change, dying and decay.
This is nothing to be afraid of. A healthy forest manifests both life and death, it needs both live trees and dead wood. The dead matter provides a habitat for lichen, fungi and insects as well as shelter for mammals. It is a vital part of the ecosystem. ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ is used in the BCP Committal service but it could equally well serve as the slogan of a thriving woodland.
The vocation of most clergy, at least those who work in ‘churches of the land’, is very much bound into the cycle of birth, life, maturing, dying and death. Baptisms, weddings, funerals – the ‘occasional offices’ – take up a good part of the typical clergy week. This is less so for clergy in the Diocese in Europe serving diaspora congregations with less connection to a territory and its inhabitants. Whilst clergy in typical parish churches might expect to conduct two or (many) more funerals a week – that’s less common in the Diocese in Europe.
My own life – and here I am like many of the lay people in our diocese – is lived to a considerable degree in environments far removed from the natural rhythms of the forest: offices, airports, hotels and the railway lines and roads that connect them. These environments are designed to feel comfortably the same 24 hours a day 365 days a year, with continuous lighting, constant Wi-Fi and non-stop coffee.
Living in these kinds of environments could lead us to minimise or even forget the profound cycle of change that is built into the natural environment. It could lead us to neglect or ignore the change that is continually taking place in our bodies and the decay and the death which inevitably comes to us all. That would be an error of the most important kind, somehow to be attempting to live in a world which really does not exist!
Of all the books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is surely the book that is most concerned with the natural rhythms and cycles of life, “There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Seeing all these cycles, makes the author wonder whether there is any meaning in it all. Yet in the middle of his work, the author seems to strike on a remarkable insight, “God has made everything beautiful in its own time. He has also set eternity in their hearts.” Alongside and with the absolutely natural cycles and times of life, human beings have within them a sense of something more: ‘the transcendent’. As the 19th century Baptist minister Alexander MacLaren put it: “Whatsoever befalls the hairs that get grey and thin, and the hands that become wrinkled and palsied, and the heart that is worn out by much beating, and the blood that clogs and clots at last, and the filmy eye, and all the corruptible frame; yet, as the heathen said, ‘I shall not all die,’ but deep within this transient clay house, that must crack and fall and be resolved into the elements out of which it was built up, there dwells an immortal guest, an undying personal self. In the heart, the inmost spiritual being of every man, eternity, in this sense of the word, does dwell.”
The material and the spiritual might seem to be opposites. But the surprising truth in my own experience is that those who live closest to the natural world (farmers, fishermen, for example) are precisely those who more likely also to have this sense of the transcendent.
To be thoroughly earthly and to have a sense of the spiritual go hand in hand. Awareness and delight in the rhythms and beauty of the forest is highly compatible with the sense that there is something (or Someone) beyond this, and that our own human lives have a meaning and destiny beyond natural decay and death too.
All Saints is therefore about even more than remembrance of people and things past, the gathering of families at gravesides, the beauty and poignancy of Autumn. It is also a celebration of Christian faith, which is to say, “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). At All Saints tide, and throughout the November season of remembrance, churches across our diocese will be attempting to put the natural reality of dying and death into a context of eternal life and hope.
 In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, a profound book that claimed that people are too terrified of death to face it.