Robert Farrar Capon’s Favorite Season

Judgment, like spring, declares what God had in mind; heaven, like autumn, insists he’s got it all in his pocket.

Mockingbird / 10.14.22

A selection from Robert Farrar Capon’s book, The Youngest Day, republished by Mbird and available here:

When we speak of heaven, we make it a spiritual bore — so much so, that heaven is almost the least useful word we have for talking about it. When the New Testament speaks of it, however, it makes it an altogether earthly riot of richness, color, and kindly light — an autumnal spectacle in which town and country, earth and air and light and water appear at their ultimate, transfigured best. Like the season it steals a page from, it looks a lot like home: time then to head for heaven and fall.

It is September 10th. The leaves are as green as summer ever saw them, the garden even lusher and more demanding. The squash bugs have long since triumphed over the zucchini, and the flies that have survived till now seem fit enough to elude the flyswatter forever. The thermometer is pushing 90 degrees. Mothers are fanning themselves at the stove. Children, confined in totally glassed-in schools, are frying in their own fat. And yet everyone is happy.


Because it’s fall, that’s why.

“Ah, but,” you object, “fall does not begin till the equinox. This rejoicing is only because it’s still summer.”

Wrong. Summer ends, as everyone knows, on Labor Day. Solstice and equinox may mark the boundaries of other seasons but in the case of summer we shorten the hellishness of it all not only by terminating it before its time but also by ignoring the actual date of its start. We do not pretend for example that winter begins on the first Monday in December or ends on the first Monday in March. Nor do we delay the advent of spring until the celebration of a Grand and Glorious Fourth of April. But with summer we are more than content, as creatures made in the image of an intelligent God, to have it begin late and end early: the less of it the better. Of the four seasons therefore it is only of fall and spring that we desire to have more.

But as I was about to say before you interrupted, what is there about fall — about even early September’s faked-out fall by anticipation — that can take circumstances indistinguishable from summer and make them occasions of joy? How is it that autumn can drag us through hell and still make it seem like heaven?

It is because autumn has a future.

“Ah, but,” you object again, “considered in terms of its ultimate destination, fall has in fact less of a future than any season. How can the prospects of waning light and increasing cold be causes of happiness?”

False question. Admittedly if fall’s prospects were as you describe, they could indeed cause only misery. But they are precisely the reverse. We expect confidently and correctly that fall will bring us, if not a greater quantity of light, nonetheless a quality of it that is absolutely great for living in: low, long light — and reflected everywhere in burnished reds and golds. Likewise we cannot properly be said to expect increasing cold: that is winter’s outlook. What we in fact look forward to in fall is decreasing heat: balmy coolness made all the more welcome by the knowledge that with each additional day the likelihood of our escaping the fire of hell steadily increases.

In fact in the further wisdom of the race we have installed within the heaven of fall itself the only tolerable version of summer known to man — and certainly the only version whose coming we so desire that on the least pretext we announce its arrival before it gets here. I speak of course of Indian summer: that choice center cut of the year, that filet of the prime season itself when all the hell that tormented us in its own time is re-cognized (oops! jargon; sorry, blame it on hell) and re-membered in the high time of autumn. Indeed if only the Holy Spirit had seen fit to include Indian summer among the images of scripture, we might never have had so much trouble reconciling heaven and hell.

But as I was saying: fall has a future and we find ourselves brightened by it because like all true futures it does its gladdening work by suffusing the present with hope. It does not hold itself out to us simply as some other, better day that may eventually arrive; it informs today with the very reality it represents.

And what is that reality precisely?

It is the fact of renewal. […]

[T]he best proof of autumn’s power to renew is a fact I’ve already mentioned: by the beginning of fall the seeds are already formed, the buds are already in place and the young of animals are strong enough to winter through till breeding time in spring. The future of every living thing is already here, held proleptically under the riot of color that is autumn. And the precise hope nourished by that future is the hope that the new order thus dazzlingly held in germ and sperm will be not some strangely other dispensation but this same old lovely order itself triumphant on the other side of winter’s death.

As a matter of fact it’s always seemed to me that the colors of autumn, far from being just a circumstance of climate and chemistry, a replacement of chlorophyll by xanthophyll, are in fact mating colors: the signals of a transcendent sexuality by which the late November actually even goes the disturbance of the spring one better. Just as the males of certain fish — stippled darters, redbelly dace — take on brilliant hues at spawning time, so in fall nature itself (indeed himself: this is Father Nature) romances the dark time of the year before inseminating it. Spring may strike the note of sex; but it’s fall that rings the cosmic changes on our chimes — and with rebirth, not just birth, as its theme. Even if we didn’t have heaven to pair it with, autumn would still speak plainly of the greatest mystery of all.

Shouldn’t we find it odd then that we haven’t allowed the spectacle of fall to shed more light on heaven? Having all but been hit over the head by a paradise on earth, shouldn’t it seem peculiar to us that when we talk about paradise itself we go out of our way to make it sound as unearthly as possible? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves where our penchant for making earth and heaven totally discontinuous came from?

Yes we should.

And kindly refrain from telling me you rather thought there was supposed to be a discontinuity between them.

Almost everybody thinks that. The world to come as conceived by the popular imagination is grossly irrelevant to this one. It is a vaguely benign future condition in which human beings (who have by then ceased to be human and become pseudo-angels with paper wings and tin halos) sit on clouds (of uniform, unvarying whiteness) and play small harps and lyres (both of which instruments the race early and wisely retired to the closet). It is a picture of a quintessentially mind-numbing experience — not to mention its being an image that utterly denies the body. The first man was of the earth, earthy; but in this thin and vaporous heaven of bed-sheeted intelligences there is not one man’s leg, not one girl’s knee, not one baby’s bottom. It is a dismal downsitting underpinned by nothing at all.

And from where, pray tell (besides from the bottomless pit) does the imagery of such anti-bodies come?

From scripture, you suggest?

Well, there are some who think it does. Like the woman who said on noticing that her neighbor’s Santa Claus had only four tiny reindeer, “Well, if people don’t read their Bibles what can you do?” there are those who firmly believe that the word of God is a treasure trove of such vapid, spiritualized nonsense. They have apparently either not read or not noticed scripture’s plethora of choice, autumnal images, all of which are earthy to the point of excess: new skies and new earth; a new Jerusalem (which, when you think about it, is no less earthy than a new Bronx would be); and all the unnecessarily gorgeous colors of its walls, its gardens and its gallant walks. But then, I gave you all that.

No, the dumb imagery — the pictures that bespeak no connection between this old autumnal beauty of a world and the glorious world to come — is not from scripture. It’s from a rotten religion that says that earth is a nasty place where creatures do piggy things and that no self-respecting Supreme Being can afford to allow even a scrap of it in his nice, antiseptic heaven. It’s from people who hate creation, not from a God who loves it.

But since the dumb imagery has often been advanced by vocal and otherwise intelligent people (rotten religion knows no bounds), it has insinuated itself not only into the mind of the masses but into the thinking of theologians. The great temptation in theology is to think that high-sounding abstractions tell you more about God than simple, earthy images. In reality of course neither tells you a thing about him as such, and both give you only analogies and hints at best. Still, given a choice, the average theologian, like the average person, chooses to ignore the images and go with the abstractions. Watch for example what that preference can do with the phrase “the world to come.”

As you know, in its common acceptation it is a synonym for heaven. Accordingly, in ordinary usage it comes to share all of that concept’s bloodless unreality. It is almost as if the word world were not even in the phrase. The amount of carryover from this world to the next that is allowed for in most people’s theologies is nearly nil: our (presumably) spiritual minds may get into the world to come; but neither our physical bodies nor, God forbid, any of their earthly circumstances or parameters are to be given a heavenly home. And that leads straight to the idea — to cite just a single commonly held theory — that in heaven there will be no time. Because the next world is eternal (whatever that means — it’s a cinch nobody who ever talked about it really knew) these theologizers conclude there is no room for past or future there, only for present.

The idiocy of that conclusion can be manifested either from experience or from scripture. Permit me to display it from both.

First, from experience. If there is a heaven worth talking about, it will be a nice place (if it’s not we should be whistling in the dark, not doing theology). And if it is indeed a nice place, the only kind of niceness it makes sense for us to predicate of it is human niceness (any other kind and we’re talking through our hats). Now then. Of all the aspects of this life that are capable of introducing niceness into our days, none is more effective than a future that can suffuse the present with hope. And likewise nothing so robs life of any niceness at all as does the conviction that we are going nowhere. Even going to hell in a handbasket is more interesting.

Accordingly, when theologians expound heaven as a state in which everything is simply present and nothing at all is future, they deserve all the yawns they get. The image immediately conjured up in every sane person’s mind is that of Sunday afternoon as a child: Daddy is asleep, Mommy is dozing over the crossword puzzle, and there will not ever as long as you live be anyplace to go again at all. It might be sold as a halfway decent picture of hell of course; but then, such theologians never were any good at recognizing a chance to make a buck.

Finally, from scripture. Not only has the “world” in “world to come” been ignored for no good reason, the whole idea of time has been run off the eternal ranch in spite of the fact that all along it was a “time” word that lay at the heart of the Greek version of the phrase. The “world to come” in Greek is the age, the aeon to come. Forever in Greek is not some futureless eternity stalled in an endless present but a glorious going somewhere, a moving from time into still deeper time, a progress to the aeon, into the aeons, unto the aeons of aeons — which last phrase, please note, the old translators had the wit to English as world without end.

Amen therefore. Do you see? Our ages, our times, our seasons — like our hands, our eyes, our limbs, our whole world — all go home in the resurrection. The next world is none other than this world, next. As there were futures here to suffuse a meager present, so there will be risen futures there to transfigure a glorious one. And as there were pasts here to be researched by memory, rummaged through by dreams and re-called by love, so there will be risen pasts there held for our endless exploration.

Judgment, like spring, declares what God had in mind; heaven, like autumn, insists he’s got it all in his pocket.

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