Seasons of Life

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 20, 1996


Genesis 8:13-22 Seedtime and harvest
John 4:31-38 The fields are ripe for harvesting
True Christian Religion #756 Seasons and ages

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)

One of the blessings--and the curses--of living in this part of the world is the dramatic changing of the seasons. We are now enjoying the peak of the fall colors here in New England. Nowhere else in the world can compare for the beauty of the foliage. Even my usually tedious drive up Rt. 495 becomes a pleasant trip as I pass through a corridor of golden yellows, deep reds and browns, and bright oranges mixed in with the green of the evergreens.

Before I moved back east to attend seminary, I spent over ten years living in the Pacific Northwest. We had seasons there as well, of course, but they were much less dramatic. The changes of season were more gradual and subtle. With evergreens predominant, and without the most colorful of the deciduous trees, fall was a gradual fading into winter. In Washington State, spring was also a long, drawn-out affair. Here in New England, it arrives with a dramatic flourish.

Of course, just as spring is more dramatic here, so also is it briefer. A few weeks, and summer is upon us with its heat and mosquitoes. The beauty of this year's fall foliage--compared with last year's more subdued colors--seems to go along with the rapidity with which we are moving into the chill of winter. The curse that goes along with the blessing of our dramatic seasons is the heat that we must endure in summer and the bitter cold we must stave off in winter. In Washington, we didn't need air conditioners, and the cost of heating was far less due to the mild winters. As with so many things, there are pluses and minuses to our seasons.

These pluses and minuses have been going on for a long time. In the Biblical story (which, of course, is purely symbolic in its early chapters), seasons as we know them apparently started sometime between the Garden of Eden and the flood at the time of Noah. If there were seasons in the Garden of Eden, they must have been very mild, since Adam and Eve had no need of clothing. They began wearing clothes, not for protection from hot or cold weather, but to hide their shame after having disobeyed God's command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

However, once we get to our reading from Genesis chapter 8, just after the flood and Noah's ark, we have God's promise that "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22). Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter. Clearly the wide shifts of seasons as we now know them have been established by this point in the Bible narrative.

Of course, considering that a flood had just wiped out most life on earth, it was very comforting for God to say that the seasons would always continue after that--that there would never be another flood to destroy every living creature. To this day, there is something comforting about knowing that as surely as day follows night, spring and summer will follow fall and winter. We can depend on the seasons. It may be getting colder now, and we know that we have a winter snow, ice, and cold weather ahead of us. But we also know that the flowers will bloom again in the spring, the trees will leaf out once again, and we will have another year of crops to provide food for our tables.

Yet God's promise that the seasons will always continue does not apply only to the seasons of the earth. In this church, we see the Bible as a symbolic or "correspondential" story that speaks primarily of our inner, spiritual state. This means that God's promise of continual seasons must also relate to our experience as human beings--as spiritual beings. It must relate to our inner experience, and to our relationships other people.

One of these relationships with our own experience is implied in our reading from True Christian Religion. Everything in the natural world, says Swedenborg, goes in cycles. As human beings, we too are a part of the natural world. Physically, we are similar to other animals, except that we have a more advanced brain and a body suited to carry out the brain's directives. Still, like the rest of nature, our physical being goes through cycles. The largest of these cycles is the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death. Most animals that are not domesticated do not spend any time to speak of in the stage of old age. As soon as there is any infirmity, animals become prey to carnivores--or simply become unable to keep themselves fed. It is an unusual feature of human beings that we are able to continue past the prime of our life and often spend many years in this final stage of physical life.

Without the promise of a spiritual world, it would be a depressing picture for individuals. We have the springtime of our birth and childhood, the summer of our youth and early maturity, the productive fall of our middle age, moving into old age and the winter of our death. If that were the end, then God's promise would come to nothing for us individually. The promise of a new springtime in a future life is part of the promise that God made long ago that seedtime and harvest would not cease.

For now, though, let us keep our focus on the way we experience these seasons of life while we are here on earth. In Arcana Coelestia #10225, Swedenborg says,

From our infancy to the end of old age we go through many inward stages. These stages have to do with our understanding and wisdom. The first stage is from birth to five years old. This is a stage of ignorance, and of innocence in our ignorance. It is called infancy. The second stage is from five to twenty years. This is a stage of learning and knowledge, and is called childhood. The third stage is from twenty to sixty years, which is a stage of intelligence. It is called young adulthood and mature adulthood. The fourth and last stage is from sixty years onward. This is a stage of wisdom, and of innocence in wisdom.

We may want to tinker with the specific ages Swedenborg gives for these stages, but the general idea is sound. At different times of our lives, we pass through different inner stages. In this summary, Swedenborg focuses primarily on the stages of our minds and our thinking.

We start out at birth with no knowledge at all. Our earliest years are spent mostly getting oriented in this world. Somewhere around five years old, we have completed this stage of orientation and we begin to seek knowledge much more consciously. Our society recognizes this transition by starting formal schooling somewhere around the age of five or six years old.

We continue in this "schooling" phase through our late teens or early twenties. During this stage of our lives, we are usually not expected to devote our energies to being productive in society. Rather, our "work" is to learn many things and prepare ourselves for adulthood, when we begin our productive, working life.

But there is another transition that takes place when we leave school. Up to this point, much of our thinking has come from the teaching and influence of others. Our parents, our school teachers, and even our friends have been the primary factors in determining what we will think and believe. This is true whether we are generally compliant to our parents or teachers or spend our younger years rebelling against them.

Once we leave school and begin working to support ourselves, this begins to change. Away from parents and teachers, and faced with the realities of living here on earth, we begin to evaluate everything we have learned. We discard what does not sense to us, and form attitudes and a beliefs that satisfy our own experiences and reflect our own outlook on life. The belief system that we adopt forms the underlying structure of our life. It is what we refer to when we make decisions about what our work will be, what our relationships with other people will be like, and generally what we will do with our life.

But our working life is not the end of the story. Our society has set the norm of retirement at sixty-five years of age. In actual practice, there is a wide variation in retirement age. Some of us have completed our working life by the time we are fifty-five. Others are still working at seventy and even eighty years old. Yet most of us who do not die before old age do pass through a time of retirement, when our focus is no longer on working to support ourselves.

This stage of our life, in Swedenborg's view, is a time for developing wisdom from the distillation of our life experience. It is also a time when we can acquire a new kind of innocence. This is not the unknowing innocence of childhood. It is an innocence that comes of having seen much in this life--both good and bad--and realizing through that experience that hurting others only leads to pain and sorrow, while loving and serving others leads to an inner peace and joy that we can gain in no other way.

These are the large seasons of our life. Infancy and childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. Not all of us make it through all these stages physically. We are sad when a young person dies because we know that he or she was not able to complete the full life cycle. When a child dies, we can gain some comfort from our church's teachings that all children who die find their final home in the loving community of heaven. If a young adult dies whose spirit is good and loving, then that life has still not been in vain.

Yet there is another, sadder way that not all of us make it through our life stages. We are quite capable of going through all the seasons of life physically, but refusing to become seasoned spiritually. Growing old is mandatory; growing wise is optional. Our physical stages are not a matter of choice, but our spiritual stages are. We have all met older people who seem not to have progressed beyond what are supposed to be earlier stages of our lives. These people still center their lives around themselves, or the way they look, or their material possessions, or even being involved with "the right crowd." They have not come to the wisdom of centering their lives around the real center of the universe--the Lord. They have not attained the wisdom of their age.

God's promise that the seasons will continue on and on is very comforting. But we cannot allow ourselves to become so comfortable with that promise that we become complacent. We have spiritual work to do during all the seasons of our life. If we do not do that work, our physical seasons will progress as usual, but our spiritual seasons will settle into a winter far colder than a New England ice storm.

In our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us a sense of that urgency in our spiritual seasons. "You say there are still four more months until the harvest," he says, "But look around you! The fields are ripe for harvesting right now!" The Lord was not talking about the physical fields. For that, the disciples would have had to wait the four months until the crops ripened. No, Jesus was talking about the spiritual fields. He was talking about the fields of love and service to our fellow human beings.

Whatever stage of life we are in, the fields of mutual love and understanding are always ready for harvest. They are ready for harvest when, as children, we help another girl or boy who has fallen down and gotten hurt. They are ready for harvest when, as teenagers, we see a friend in trouble and make the extra effort to help. The fields are ready for harvest when we are about our work as adults, and we pause to make sure the people around us know that we appreciate them and care about them. They are ready for harvest when, as we grow older, we bring a sense of peace and perspective to those in our families and our communities.

In the seasons of our spiritual lives, the fields are ready for harvest every time we have a chance to say a kind word or do a helpful act of service for another person. Jesus says, "Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life." Amen.