The stark, lifeless surface of the moon in the foreground showed just how precious is the abundant life on our own planet.
The Four Seasons of a Tree, Don't Judge a Life By One Difficult Season
Seeing the entire earth in a single view put it all into perspective. And yet, here on earth the struggles and challenges of each day still loom large for us. They fill up the horizons of our ordinary vision. Unlike seeing our earth as one spherical planet suspended in the vastness of space, our life is suspended in the vastness of time. Things that are extended in space can be seen all in one view, as long as we get far enough away from them. But things that are extended in time, by their very nature as sequential phenomena, cannot be seen all at once.
This makes it possible for us to step back and see whole time periods and whole cycles of events in a single view, similar to the unified view of earth that the Apollo 8 astronauts first gave us forty-five years ago. For example, in Genesis , after the waters of the Great Flood had receded, God said:. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.
The Four Seasons of Spiritual Growth
God made this promise to a group of human beings: to Noah and his family. God vowed never again to cut off life on earth as in the Flood, but to allow us to continue in our generations as long as the earth itself endures. We now know that the earth will not endure forever. In a billion or two years, as the sun gets hotter, the earth will become too hot for us to live on it.
A few billion years after that, the sun will swallow it up.
But while the earth does last as a life-bearing planet, we humans will continue to pass through the days and nights, and the summers and winters, of our lives. Even in the tropics, many areas experience seasonal variations in rainfall and humidity, causing noticeable seasons. For farmers and others who live close to the land, life revolves around the seasons. For city-dwellers, the seasons have a smaller impact, but they are still a regular presence.
Many jobs are also seasonal. Our familiarity with the change of the seasons each year offers us a mental image by which we can see our whole life in a single view.
Looked at from a physical standpoint:. And yet, these seasons of life go beyond the physical. Each of these phases in our life has its own emotional, intellectual, and spiritual character as well. Of course, like human beings, there are many complexities and variations in the seasons. Though we can only offer a simplified view for now, it is good to keep in mind that different people will experience many complex variations of seasonal changes in their lives.
Spring is a time of germination and new growth. As the sun warms up the soil, seeds that have lain dormant through the cold winter sprout and grow. Trees and perennial plants wake up from their winter slumber and put out new buds and branches. By the end of spring, vigorous new life proliferates throughout the temperate zones.
The springtime of our physical life cycle starts with our conception in the womb. It is our time of new life and vigorous growth. By the time our physical springtime has reached its end, we are approaching our adult size, development, and stature. This is also a period of great growth emotionally and intellectually. Our time in the womb establishes a subconscious sense of being warm, safe, and cared for. Ideally this continues into infancy, when our parents and perhaps older siblings or other family members care for our needs and provide us with human love and contact. These early years of our life establish the emotional foundations of our life.
All of our future growth and life is based on what happens between conception and about five years of age. From about five years old through adolescence we shift to a more intellectual phase of our development. Yes, our emotional growth and wellbeing is still critical. But now our focus is more on learning.
These years are devoted to our schooling and training for adult life. These processes also lay the foundations for our spiritual life. Our experience of being loved and cared for as infants and toddlers provides an essential foundation on which we can later build the spiritual superstructure of love and wisdom that forms us into a truly spiritual person. And our focus on learning during our childhood and youth develops the thinking, discerning mind that God will use to guide us all through the long process of our spiritual rebirth and regeneration that takes place during adulthood.
Like the springtime of nature, the springtime of our life is when we develop from a mere seed of potential humanity into a fully grown human being, ready to enter into our productive adult years. In nature, the heat of summer is when plants and animals are most active, solidifying the growth of springtime and flourishing under the warm sun.
Summer is also when the first harvests begin to ripen. In other words, summer is a time of moving toward productivity. In our life, this is the time of young adulthood. In our early twenties we reach the peak of our physical strength and endurance. At first we may be somewhat unfocused, still trying to figure out what we will do for our career, still thinking about how we will make our mark on the world.
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This is when we begin to use the emotional and intellectual foundations that were laid during our infancy, childhood, and youth. It is when we become our own person, responsible for our own life, making our own decisions about what we will do with our life and what sort of person we will be. Our twenties and thirties are also the time when we are most likely to start our own families if that is going to be a part of our life. Like plants that develop their seeds and fruits through the summer, we begin a new cycle of life for the next generation of human beings.
Spiritually speaking, the summer of our young adulthood is when we have our first opportunity to begin consciously growing and developing as spiritual beings in our own right. Yes, children can be very spiritual. But it is a borrowed spirituality, based on influences from parents, ministers, and teachers, absorbed uncritically in the innocence of childhood. This is a time when it becomes own choice whether to be religious or spiritual, instead of our beliefs being largely a reaction to the beliefs of our parents and teachers.
In other words, the summer of our youth is when we begin our own independent spiritual journey. During this time we make many critical decisions that will determine the course of the rest of our lives, for better or for worse. Just as the springtime of childhood and youth gives way to the summertime of young adulthood, so the summer of our twenties and thirties gives way to middle age.
In nature, the fall is the most productive time of year. Though some crops come in earlier, by fall, gardens and fruit trees alike are yielding their harvest. This is the time when all of our labors come into fruition, and we lay up the food that will sustain us through the winter. Though we have our greatest vigor and energy in our twenties and thirties, it is in the next two or three decades that we often become the most productive. We have established ourselves in some career, profession, or other work, and we have a routine.
We have also gained valuable experience that enables us to guide and direct both ourselves and others who may work with us toward better and more productive work. Spiritually, the autumn of our life is the time that we begin to reach full maturity. In our youth our life was mostly about fulfilling our dreams and getting the most out of life for ourselves. Now our focus tends to shift toward what we can do for the people around us, and how we can contribute to the wellbeing of our community and our world. In other words, spiritually our autumn is when our focus finally begins to shift toward loving and serving our neighbor.
This is when the fruits and seeds of service that have been developing all summer finally ripen and reach their harvest. In nature, everything is born, grows, lives out its life, and then declines and dies. Every plant and animal has its life cycle. The earth itself was born over four billion years ago, and is now in the later and most productive part of its life cycle. In another one or two billion years, most of its now-teeming life will have died out, and its life cycle will be ending.