The seasons of the year provide for many people an intuitive metaphor for understanding seasons of our lives. The lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s poignant “September Song” need no explanation: “Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December/ But the days grow short when you reach September.” Over the years I have found that the seasons also provide a helpful lens through which to describe our lives of prayer. While no two people journey to God in exactly the same way, the metaphor of seasons can give insights into the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, periods of intimacy as well as times of staleness that make up each stage of our spiritual lives.
Spring of Life: Awakening
Spring is a time of blossoming, a season full of promise and possibilities. On a spiritual level, spring involves “waking up” to the discovery of God as personal in a way that is possible only when we have grown into the capacity to fall in love with another. Here we are invited to begin to personally experience God as friend, companion, disciple, beloved daughter or son. Such an awakening can be gradual or abrupt. And it can occur at any time in our lives. Its defining quality is the discovery of God as real.
Dorothy Day provides us with an example of such an awakening. As she began to read the Bible for the first time, she realized “a new personality impressed itself on me. I was being introduced to someone and I knew almost immediately that I was discovering God.... Life would never again be the same.”
Using the analogy of friendship, spiritual writers describe this season of prayer as the “getting to know you” phase. Our initial step in pursuing a relationship with God often begins with vocal prayer. We use someone else’s words to begin a conversation with God: the Our Father, Hail Mary or reciting the rosary. St. Teresa of Avila encouraged such prayer, reminding us that vocal prayer, faithfully recited with a realization of who it is that we are addressing, has the power to carry us ultimately into the deepest depths of contemplative prayer.
Such vocal prayers can be helpful through the whole of our lives as well. While sick with cancer, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin found that praying the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” brought comfort and peace.
Spring invites us to “come and see.”Getting to know the one we are drawn to love leads us to the Scriptures. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ invitation to two of John the Baptist’s disciples to “come and see” expresses his invitation to each of us as well. As we spend time with God through reflecting on his words and actions, we come to know what kind of person Jesus is, what his values are and what becoming his friend will entail. As one young man I worked with commented, “Before I commit myself to this relationship, I want to know who it is I am committing to.” As in any relationship, we cannot love someone we do not know.
As we seek to put on the mind and heart of Jesus, we are challenged to get our life in sync with our desires. Motivated to cultivate a life of virtue, we gain self-knowledge regarding the myriad ways in which egocentricity and selfishness block our ability to grow in love of God and others. We begin to strive to love God with all our hearts, mind and strength, to align our will with God’s will and to love those who are a part of our lives with the same loving kindness that characterizes God’s love for us.
Summer of Life: From Knowing to Loving
Summer brings images of warm, sunny days. The rich smells and vivid colors of nature are in full bloom. Many spiritual writers employ the imagery of summer to describe the honeymoon phase of our relationship with God, similar to that of a good marriage or a deepening friendship. Our one-on-one prayer time with God is filled with consolation. We feel the warmth of God’s love and presence; we enjoy spending time with him.
Our prayer becomes more spontaneous, devotional and affective as we open our minds and hearts to God in prayers of petition, thanksgiving, praise or adoration. As we come to know God more intimately, we are also drawn more to listen than to talk. We find ourselves more content to simply be present to God in love. We become aware of the divine drawing us to the center of our souls where the Holy Spirit joins our spirit. Jesus invites us to “Abide in me and I abide in you” (Jn 15:4).
Summer invites us to find God in the world.As we learn to be present to God within, so too should we be developing the habit of finding God in the context of our daily lives. Most of us in the summer of our lives are involved in raising a family, earning a living, caring for people in ministry, etc. How can we live a deep prayer life while leading such full lives?
Jesus is our model. He did not leave the world to find God; on the contrary, he lived each day in the midst of people, and he found God there. Yet he often went off to commune with God—early in the morning, late afternoon—before all his major decisions. As Jesus had a rhythm to his life, so must we. We can pray anywhere—driving to work in the morning, waiting in a doctor’s office, walking along a beach. Our life of prayer should center us, enabling us to be more intentional as we discern God’s presence in the people and activities of daily life.
Autumn of Life: From Satisfaction to Value
The season of summer gradually shades into autumn. The season begins with Indian summer-like days, brisk, clear air, leaves reaching their peak of brilliant colors. Gradually the days get shorter, grayer and the trees begin to let go of their leaves to reveal the barrenness of limbs.
In one of my favorite books on prayer, Experiencing God, Thomas Green, S.J., describes the invitation of this season: “After the Lord has gotten us hooked on himself, then he says, ‘Okay, now we have to go about the serious business of transformation. You’re going to have to let me work to make you divine if you’re ever going to realize the kind of union with me that you desire.’”
That work begins with the invitation to deepening contemplative prayer, that is, a resting in God—a quiet, wordless, being present to God in the core of our being. In this resting or stillness, the mind and heart are not actively seeking God so much as being receptive to God’s presence and action within it.
At times, God is close, and prayer is easy and joyful. At other times, and more frequently, God seems far away and our prayer feels empty and dry. Drawing on his own experience, one student commented, “I feel like I’m in the desert, and occasionally I come upon an oasis.” A woman offered this reflection during a spiritual direction session: “I’d have to say that for about a year and a half I’ve been more aware of God’s absence. It has been emptiness, longing, yearning, darkness. And then there are times when we come together. When the shift comes, I experience God moving toward me. Then my prayer is relaxation, a receiving and an affirming.”
Autumn asks us to move from lives of pleasure to self-giving.As with prayer, so too with life. We all begin life with great desires, and we spend years experiencing the satisfaction of achieving our goals. But it is important that we realize there will come a time when every significant relationship with God and others will reach an impasse—that is, we will experience its limits, its inability to satisfy us in the way it did before. Through these life experiences, God encourages us to make the passage from loving, serving and being with him and others because of the pleasure and joy it gives, to loving and serving God and others out of self-giving love.
Father Green provides the following example. Two people getting married at the age of 25 say to each other, “I love you because you fulfill all my desires. You make me happy.” This is nice, but still essentially self-centered. Hopefully, by the age of 60, after many years of marriage, the couple now say, “I love you, and therefore your joy makes me joyful, your happiness makes me happy.” This is the kind of transformation God is working in us. God prunes us, stretches us and enlarges our capacity to receive him not only in prayer but in life.
Winter of Life: From Loving to Truly Loving
The season of winter conjures up a mixture of sentiments. On the one hand, winter is biting, bleak, desolate, barren, frigid; on the other, it is peaceful, calm, clear, stark, tranquil. While the wintry season of prayer can and does occur at any time in a person’s life, for many women and men it describes the mixture of blessing and diminishment that characterizes life’s final season.
For many, prayer at this time is a quiet abiding with God in gratitude for all of life’s blessings. It is also a time when, in taking stock of our lives, we seek God’s forgiveness for the hurt we caused others along the way. In deep trust and surrender of our one and only life to God, contemplation continues to be a look of love that simplifies and deepens.
For others, the habits of prayer—learned and practiced through the former seasons of life—kick in to offer sustenance during times of suffering and loss. The poet and writer Kathleen Norris describes how the Liturgy of the Hours became a constant companion helping her to cope with the difficulty of her husband’s illness and death. She describes going to visit him in the hospital on a day when the air was so frigid that it hurt to breathe: “As I cursed the cold and the icy pavement under my feet, these words of the canticle from the Sunday divine office came to mind: ‘Bless the Lord, winter cold and summer heat.../ Bless the Lord, dews and falling snow.../ Bless the Lord, nights and days....’”
Unaccountably consoled, Norris was grateful that the Liturgy of the Hours she had prayed so often was having the desired effect. The words were now a part of her, and when she most needed them, the rhythm of her walking had stirred them up to erode her anxiety and remind her that blessings may be found in all things.
Winter invites us to be at home in darkness.For many in this wintry season, God seems distant and prayer feels barren and dry. It is at this time that many are tempted to stop praying because they feel nothing is happening. But St. John of the Cross encourages those in this state to be content with a simple loving, peaceful attentiveness to God without concern, without effort, even without desire to taste or feel him.
After many years of experiencing God’s consoling presence, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta found herself immersed in darkness, feeling abandoned by God. Through a good spiritual director, she realized that her very longing for God was indeed an experience of God. Thus, she learned to be at home in the darkness, trusting that God was drawing her into an ever-deepening union with him. She found hope and reassurance in knowing that loving surrender to God at this time was not a feeling but a choice of the will.
She chose to believe in God, hope in God and love God as the source of her deepest meaning and fulfillment—and deep joy and peace returned.
A Light in Latter Days
The journey of prayer through the seasons of life should gradually bring us closer to its final goal: transforming union with God. This is a union of wills and a partnership with God that is the source of fruitfulness in every aspect of our lives.
At a conference I once gave on prayer, a woman shared her experience of God in this final season of life. Her words expressed the joyful outcome of a life lived in love and fidelity through the challenges and graces of each season:
Years have mellowed me considerably so that I’ve come to be much more gentle and forgiving with myself and others, because I’ve experienced a God who is so gentle, loving, forgiving, inviting and patient—an ever-present God. The “beloved” of God in John’s Gospel has become a faith model for me. The beloved was a witness to the light. That is my relationship with God at this point in my life—to be a witness to the light.
As a spiritual director, I have found that while many people are graced with similar experiences of being the beloved of God, others often become discouraged or lose their way because they are not familiar with the church’s rich teaching on prayer and the spiritual life. I hope this description of the seasons of our relationship with God will strengthen the conviction of fellow pilgrims to stay the course, trusting in God’s personal, loving presence and guidance through each stage of our journey to fullness of life in God.