Autumn Panic

canned fruit - photo by Dale Jackson from Pexels

I was a city kid until I moved to rural Vermont in 1979, where even now there are more trees than people. The northeast corner of Vermont is known for the exquisite fall foliage. People come from around the world to soak in the saturated reds and yellows and orange of the leaves, the brilliant blue skies, and the crisp, fresh air. The drive to work on country roads every morning was pure joy.

Why wasn’t everyone else as happy as I? They enjoyed talking about their gardens and canning and freezing the ripening vegetables and fruit. They were proud of their work and loved seeing the shelves fill up with the beautiful jars. But satisfaction didn’t equate with joy. They might have enjoyed picking apples with their children, making cider, and freezing pie filling, but why weren’t they happy? Why was I sensing dread? It took a few more years watching the changing seasons for me to understand that what I was sensing was what I now call “autumn panic.” School starts before summer is over, leaves turn color, and the animals—even the human ones—feel the primal urge to get ready for winter. It’s coming and coming faster than our wishes or denials allow.

Today I am watching children going to school, leaves are beginning to turn, and I’m canning applesauce and jams for those freezing winter mornings when a taste of summer will ease the chill with good memories and delicious flavors. I find myself wondering if, as a child, St. Ignatius ever hung out in the castle kitchen when the cooks were doing the same thing. I’m guessing he did, and with his charm, I’m sure the cooks gave him extra treats of bread and jam.

I have been in my own autumn panic these past few months as I adjust mentally and emotionally to ending the 19th annotation. I’ve been restless, anxious, wanting closure, and longing to feel confidence. I have kept the customary prayer practice of the past year and felt confusion. I had hoped to keep the momentum of the Exercises going and prayed to be brought deeper into the heart of Christ. But dread was a constant companion, telling me that keeping that momentum going was impossible, and I was old enough to realize that.

My spiritual director suggested reading Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s The Discernment of Spirits. After a few pages, I knew that Ignatius was helping me again, offering a user manual for my life after the Exercises. His 14 rules for discernment written 500 years ago named and then walked me out of spiritual desolation to an understanding of what has been happening in my life, throughout my life. I was encouraged to understand that consolation eventually follows desolation. Just as we prepare for other challenges throughout our lives, we can prepare for the challenges to our spiritual life.

Ignatius calls our biggest challenge “the Enemy,” who is dedicated to our spiritual destruction. The Enemy wants us isolated, but we know we have Ignatius and centuries of dedicated, faithful companions who have been led by his wisdom. The Enemy is clever enough to trick us. He is a skilled, malicious liar whose deceit can distort any person’s journey of faith. Yet his convincing illusion of power and knowledge disappears when we reach out to a spiritually wise person in our life. The Enemy works to confuse us and convince us that we are alone when right next to us is the Lord of Mercy and the Father who loves us completely. When we understand this and ask for help, the Spirit’s wisdom and grace shut down the Enemy.

My joy came when I understood that we can prepare for the next assault and not dread it. Prayer, God’s grace, and honest self-reflection liberate us and help us work on our defenses. We are not helpless. We have what we need.

I would love to give Ignatius a hug right now—and some bread and homemade jam.

Photo by Dale Jackson from Pexels.

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Mary Ann Gessner has been an art teacher at all age levels, a nursing home recreation director, and worked in social services and international recruitment and as Director of Admission for St. Johnsbury Academy, Vermont. She received a BA from the University of Bridgeport and an MSA from St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Since her retirement in 2015, she has been nesting, quilting, cooking, and has just completed the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. Mary Ann has applied to a clinical pastoral education program and is rediscovering her love of teaching through storytelling. Her two sons have moved into their grown lives with their families, and she and her husband, Bob, live in the log home they built 44 years ago in Sheffield, Vermont.

23 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you so much, Mary Ann! I myself am in the middle of the “Fourth Week” of a 19th Annotation Retreat, and have told my spiritual director that the “high” of Week 4 has not been as “high” as Week 3 was definitely “low.”
    And I wonder if the Enemy isn’t trying to steal my joy in the Resurrection, by spreading worry about “what comes next,” when the “Fifth Week” starts.
    Heartening to know we’re each in a similar boat, so thanks!!

    • That was exactly what happened to me, Fr. Evans. As it turned out, I entered the Fourth Week on Holy Saturday. That night, after the vigil, I fell and broke my knee and was trapped in a brace for the whole fourth week of the Exercises trying to understand and chase illusive joy it seemed everyone was talking about and I couldn’t feel. “The next” of the Fifth week felt like a cliff. The importance of an Ignatian trained director can’t be underestimated and the Holy Spirit will be there for you. When in doubt…have some bread and jam. The Gallagher books have been my bridge into real life and understanding what those highs and lows are all about and where they come from. You, as a priest, are a prime target and Ignatius who’ll show you how to fight the one using you for target practice. I will pray for you in these special days. You are not alone…that is for sure.

  2. What a thoughtful reflection, Mary Ann. Sometimes by facing our worries, we will eventually unveil that the things that worry us the most will sort itself out. Take it easy and take care <3

  3. Thanks Mary Ann. Indeed, “the Lord of Mercy and the Father who loves us completely” – never abandons his loved ones.

  4. Beautiful Mary Ann! I have had my own autumn panic so this resonates. Also makes me think of the behavior of squirrels in the fall – absolute craziness as they store up for winter.

    • Thanks, Sally. It is a lot like the squirrels when you live so close to nature. Getting ready for what comes as best we can offers the comfort of full shelves and nesting while the winds blow.

  5. I needed this reminder. Being in transition of moving-sending youngest off to college-not working in my field has me falling for the cunning plan of the enemy. Yet, I’ll turn around and there will be a reminder- like yours, to face me to the truth and the right track.
    Thank you.

    • Oh, Margaret, I’m getting ready for a trip and am struggling. I can’t imagine moving…and where is the Kleenex while saying goodbye to your college student. Not working in your field was what got me hired in the nursing home and it became my field for 26 years. Hope you build in breaths to savor, regroup and move forward…one day at a time. Good luck!

  6. Excellent reflection that brings back many memories. I’m originally from CT and had family in VT and spent a lot of time there. Beautiful memories, but by my early twenties the autumn panic got the best of me and I realized I’d had enough of winter. I’ve been in TX now for many years. But I’ve learned – slowly – to prepare with less dread the upcoming “winters.” Very thought provoking…thank you.

    • Thank you, Brian. Looking back on this memory, I can see a gift from the Exercises is an understanding of the rhythm we live in between consolation and desolation. Now I might feel the panic but know it is temporary and grace will get me through it. Removing the element of surprise…Winter follows autumn but spring follows winter…making that connection with discernment of spirits was liberating. I’ve learned “slowly” too. So glad we don’t get extra points for speed!

  7. Thank you! I began the “second week” of the 19th Annotation 2 weeks ago. It’s reassuring to get a glimpse of someone else’s journey. My emotions and prayers so many times mirror what you express. Beginning the second week and this week praying w Mother Mary in the Nativity was gift.
    As I told my director “I feel as though I’ve been “living in sin” for a month—and I’m really needing a glimpse of joy simply to just stay the course.”
    We live in Ohio just west of Cleveland near Lake Erie. I’ve frozen peaches, will go apple picking w grandkids, and have pumpkins in the flower beds. I take my prayers to our backyard where oak leaves and acorns are falling and to the nearby beach where geese and ducks are getting the flocks together. Thank you.

    • I’m so happy for you, Helen. It is a challenging and transformational journey and coming to understand discernment of spirits is a grace I’m sure you are already receiving. We will soon be with our infant granddaughter and my arms long to hold her. I’m sure I will revisit that meditation while she sleeps. The hidden years will offer you the healing and consolation you are longing for. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds you. It’s a hug!

  8. Mary Ann, your reflection gave me such peace. Your understanding of just how The Spiritual Exercises moved and continue to move within you is beautiful. I love how you say we have what we need. Yes, we are so graced. We face beginnings and endings with confidence through The Lord. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Very helpful reflection. We are not helpless. We can prepare for the next inevitable onslaught of fear, indecision, and disappointment. Thank you. Now I think I’ll have some jam and toast. 😊

    • I just did! The Gallagher book has been an incredible help. There is a workbook that companions it and I was so glad I got both. I needed the repetition for the important points Ignatius made to sink in.

  10. wow.. just got to read this.. when inexplicibly my mood descended.. Times are strange now. 2021…. thank you for this.. I do so like to understand most everything, learning and trying hard that I can`t and to leave things in God`s Hands.. thank you for this…

    • You are welcome, Pauline. Gallagher’s book helped me understand why St. Ignatius wrote and spoke so much about discernment of spirits. It is such a help to have the tools he offers and we will all have plenty of time to practice!

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