Chapel Talk

September 14, 2009

Everywhere on campus you can see signs of the approach of autumn. The most immediately visible ones, of course, are the trees, especially our august maples that have begun to flaunt their autumnal colors. There is one just to the west of the president’s house, by the big white tent that’s set up for our festivities, that is always the first one on campus to turn. About half of its leaves have fallen, and they lie beneath it this morning in a glorious heap of yellow and orange. Across St. Olaf Avenue, in front of Ytterboe House, another maple is aflame. If you walked across the campus green to chapel this morning, you saw the maple just outside Boe Chapel, and the one in front of Mellby Hall, beginning to burst. It won’t be long before our entire arboreal canopy has gone from green to red and orange. The cover of the fall issue of St. Olaf Magazine, just published last week, shows what’s in store for us. Autumn is beautiful at St. Olaf.

Autumn carries a certain set of associations for most people, derived from its place in the cycle of the seasons. We associate autumn with abundance, fulfillment, maturity, ripeness. It’s a mellow season, temperate, tinged with melancholy because of its association with the end of the growing season and the coming of winter. The poet laureate of autumn is John Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er brimmed their clammy cells.

(“To Autumn” ll. 1-11)

Keats’ images of autumn converge around plenitude: vines are “loaded” and “blessed” with fruit, apples “bend” the limbs of the trees, gourds “swell,” hazel nuts “plump,” honey “o’er brims” the hive. Perhaps you find, as I do, in all these images of abundance and completion, a sense of calm, of satisfaction, of rest. Keats does too, for in the next stanza of the poem he imagines a personified Autumn sitting drowsily amidst the harvest store, drugged by plenty.

Of course, we all know what comes after autumn, especially in Minnesota, and it’s not pretty: sub-zero temperatures, snow, ice, dark, cold winds. Hazelnuts won’t be “plumping” here in January. We will be hunkered down for Interim, except for those who have enrolled in courses whose subject, remarkably, is best studied during January in places like the Caribbean basin.

It’s fun to observe, at the start of our College’s 135th, or sesquinonagintenial, year, however, that the academic seasons do not align with the natural cycle. Far from marking fulfillment, maturity, and ripeness, autumn is our season of beginnings. It is, as Taylor Brorby ’10 observed in his remarks at Opening Convocation last week, our planting season. Anyone who has been on campus this last week knows that Keats’ image of Autumn reclined drowsily on a granary floor drinking in the harvest smells doesn’t reflect our experience of autumn. In the fall we’re all about moving in, starting up, and gathering intensity. We’re gearing up, not winding down. We’re on the road to reading, lab assignments, papers, quizzes, exams, reports, mid-terms, and finals. Autumn is our season of energy and promise. As I’m fond of saying, our sap rises in the cold months.

Winter is our growing season. “Bleak mid-winter,” as the poet Christina Rossetti called it, is our season of fecundity. First-year students especially, with one semester under their belts, are blossoming intellectually, brimming over with new ideas and experiences, and blooming as members of our community.

We harvest in the spring, not the fall. Our harvest festival is called commencement. On a breezy, warm day when the rest of Minnesota is putting its seed in the ground, we are taking ours out. All those feelings associated with autumn — maturity, ripeness, completion — and a tinge of melancholy, mark our springtime. When the rest of the world is saying “hello” to new life, we are saying “goodbye” to a class.

The selection of verses from Psalm 104 that constitutes our text for today offers a third take on the cycle of the seasons:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
And to their labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all:

(Psalm 104: 10-13, 19-24)

In these verses the psalmist reminds us that our seasons, whether we think of nature’s cycle of seasons reflected in the maple trees on campus in September, or the academic season bound at one end by move-in day and at the other by commencement, are only aspects of, are defined by and exist within, God’s vision for the world. There is human time, which I’ve been reflecting on this morning, and then there is God’s time, which began with Creation, which defines our days and our seasons, and which transcends our human measurement and understanding. God created the world we inhabit — the light, the waters, the winds, the creatures, their habitats, us. It is God, not we, who marks the seasons, measures the days, blesses our labor. The creation, reflecting both God’s power and wisdom, defines and orders not just our time but our very lives. We measure our time in days and by seasons; God, eternal and wise, enfolds and sustains us within the created world that reflects God’s love and care for us. Who would not join the psalmist in hymns of praise?

So, when we reflect on the misalignment between the cycle of the seasons and the seasons of the college, the real message is that we should look just not to the maple trees, nor just to the academic calendar, to give meaning to our lives. We should look instead to the creator God, whose love for the creation gave us hours and days and seasons and who enfolds us within them.


David R. Anderson ’74