“I believe in life everlasting.” This is the final phrase of The Apostles’ Creed, which is one of the Catholic professions of faith. Its meaning refers to the last things: death and judgment, heaven and hell, the end of the world, the recapitulation of all in God, and more. The theological terms for these things is eschatology. For Catholic teaching on these matters, go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1020-1060.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere nature reminds me of these last things at a personal and spiritual level. Signs of dying surround us. Leaves change color and drop from trees. Insects and reptiles slow down or die. Bears begin to hibernate. Daylight diminishes. Darkness increases. Frost and fog blanket the meadows and valleys. Mystery and melancholy permeate both nature and moods.
It’s time for my annual rereading of chapter VIII of my 1929 copy of Bambi by Felix Salten. While most Americans are familiar with the Disney version of the Bambi story, Disney was inspired by the original story. I love this chapter, which I’ve quoted below, because of the dialogue between the two leaves. Their words reveal the wonder and mystery of earthly life and life hereafter.
The leaves were falling from the great oak at the meadow’s edge. They were falling from all the trees.
One branch of the oak reached high above the others and stretched far out over the meadow. Two leaves clung to its very tip.
“It isn’t the way it used to be,” said one leaf to the other.
“No,” the other leaf answered. “So many of us have fallen off to-night we’re almost the only ones left on our branch.”
“You never know who’s going to go next,” said the first leaf. “Even when it was warm and the sun shone, a storm or a cloudburst would come sometimes, and many leaves were torn off, though they were still young. You never know who’s going to go next.”
“The sun seldom shines now,” sighed the second leaf, “and when it does it gives no warmth. We must have warmth again.”
“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”
“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”
“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.
They were silent a while. Then the first leaf said quietly to herself, “Why must we fall?…”
The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”
“We sink down….”
“What is under us?”
The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”
The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”
The first leaf answered, “Who knows? Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”
They were silent again. Then the first leaf said tenderly to the other, “Don’t worry so much about it, you’re trembling.”
“That’s nothing,” the second leaf answered, “I tremble at the least thing now. I don’t feel so sure of my hold as I used to.”
“Let’s not talk any more about such things,” said the first leaf.
The other replied, “No, we’ll let be. But—what else shall we talk about?” She was silent, but went on after a little while, “Which of us will go first?”
“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” the other leaf assured her. “Let’s remember how beautiful it was, how wonderful, when the sun came out and shone so warmly that we thought we’d burst with life. Do you remember? And the morning dew, and the mild and splendid nights….”
“Now the nights are dreadful,” the second leaf complained, “and there is no end to them.”
“We shouldn’t complain,” said the first leaf gently. “We’ve outlived many, many others.”
“Have I changed much?” asked the second leaf shyly but determinedly.
“Not in the least,” the first leaf assured her. “You only think so because I’ve got to be so yellow and ugly. But it’s different in your case.”
“You’re fooling me,” the second leaf said.
“No, really,” the first leaf exclaimed eagerly, “believe me, you’re as lovely as the day you were born. Here and there may be a little yellow spot but it’s hardly noticeable and only makes you handsomer, believe me.”
“Thanks,” whispered the second leaf, quite touched. “I don’t believe you, not altogether, but I thank you because you’re so kind, you’ve always been so kind to me. I’m just beginning to understand how kind you are.”
“Hush,” said the other leaf, and kept silent herself for she was too troubled to talk any more.
Then they were both silent. Hours passed.
A moist wind blew, cold and hostile, through the tree-tops.
“Ah, now,” said the second leaf, “I….” Then her voice broke off. She was torn from her place and spun down.
Winter had come.