Is a beach, a forest, a flower beautiful when nobody is looking at it? I remember such questions being laid before us at school to get us to think.
The answer can be many layered, from ‘of course it is always beautiful’ to ‘God sees it, and everything he made is good’, to ‘We must train our eyes to see just as we must train our brains to think.’
When I first got to know the Mermaid rose it was in a pot in the garden centre, but just asking to be grown against our house wall. It is happy there, despite its being a dry spot; so happy I had to prune it quite heavily last autumn before it scratched too many passers-by. Mermaid has vicious thorns!
So the blossom is a little late this year, but plentiful. However, there is another beauty to be seen: the shoots of new growth where the bush wants to regain lost territory. What a beautiful red, but it will last no more than a few days.
The answer to the question?
Laudato Si’ !
The old road passes along the top of Tankerton slope after running inland to skirt the Marshes. The sea wall with its promenade protects the slope from crumbling into the waters, and apart from rough grass there are green plants and bushes all the way. One rarity is hog’s fennel, which when we visited with Abel had filled a patch of land with mounds of lacy, dark green leaf. We got up close when chasing after an upwardly mobile toddler.
It is good to know that something so beautiful is being watched over, conserved.
Looking after one small corner of our shared home is a step towards saving the planet, so thanks are due to those looking after the slopes.
And Laudato Si’ !
Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these, (Matthew 6: 29) though I can imagine William Morris enjoying the challenge of translating this into a textile design!
Today’s reading and tomorrow’s invite us, as Mary Webb challenged us yesterday, to be merely receptive. Laudato Si’!
The story of any flower is not one of stillness, but of faint gradations of movement that we cannot see. The widening and lengthening of petals, the furling and unfurling of leaves, are too gentle for our uneducated eyes. The white convolvulus that flowers only for a day meets the early light folded as if with careful fingers, and dusk finds it folded in almost the same way. You would think that the stillness had never been broken; yet between dawn and twilight the flower’s lifework has been completed in one series of smooth, delicate motions. The hour of the pointed bud has been followed by hours of change, until the time of the open blossom and the feeding bee; and even in that triumphant moment a faint tremor shook the spread corolla, and the final silent furling had begun. During the whole drama the flower has seemed stationary – and we never see.
Watch a bank of periwinkle on an early summer morning. The fresh blue flowers are poised high on delicate stalks, and seem aloof from the leaves. Absolute stillness broods over them; no tremor is discernible in leaf or petal; the wide blue flowers gaze up intently into the wide blue sky. Suddenly, without any breath of wind, without so much stir as a passing gnat makes, one flower has left her stem. No decay touched her; it was just that in her gently progressive existence the time for erect receiving was over. Some faint vibration told her that the moment had come for her to leave off gazing stilly at the sky; and so, in silence and beauty, with soft precipitation, she buried her face in the enfolding evergreen leaves. This pale shadow of a gesture is as lovely, as inevitable, as the flight of wild swans beating up the sky.
Mary Webb’s illness caused swellings, which eventually distorted her face. But:
There are many to whom all beauty seems denied; they hunger for it dumbly, unconsciously. Is their life to be a stricken tree, colourless and silent? Surely not. The flawless forms and colours of nature are an especial consolation to those who are oppressed by that dark tragedy, deformity of body or unloveliness of face. How deep is the desolation, when a sad soul looks out anxiously, through eyes that cannot reflect its beauty, watching for an answering smile, and meeting only a look of swiftly concealed repulsion! Startled and ill at ease in the ruinous mortal dwelling, reminded of it continually, this soul leads a life of torture. I saw one of these look from her windows and weep bitterly, finding no comfort. Then a voice came in the long sigh of the dawn breeze:–
“I know, inhabitant of eternity, how strait and comfortless your home is. Go out into my garden and forget. The skies are clear; see where I lead out my sidereal flocks! The tall young larches are dreaming of green; there is moonlight in the primrose woods. There is a fit dwelling for you; go, and be at peace.”
She rose and went, and her laugh came back upon the wind. The leaves do not hesitate to finger and kiss any face, however marred, that looks up into their dwelling. No distortion of body frightens the birds, if the heart within loves them.
One flower of germander speedwell may be the magic robe that clothes us with the beauty of earth. It has the same strength of structure, wonder of tint and mystery of shadow as all natural things. Awakened by its minute perfection, the mind … realises that nature’s beauty can never be perfectly grasped.
Ceasing for a time to question and strive, let us dare to be merely receptive.
When participation in man’s keen life is denied, it is not strange if laughter dies. In the sirocco of pain it is not surprising if joy and faith are carried away.
So many sit by the wayside begging, unconscious that the great Giver is continually passing down the highways and hedges of nature, where each weed is wonderful. So many are blind and hopeless, yet they have only to desire vision, and they will see that through His coming the thickets are quickened into leaf and touched with glory.
Out in this world the spirit that was so desolate, lost in the strange atmosphere of physical inferiority, may once more feel the zest that he thought was gone for ever. And this zest is health: sweeping into the mind and into those recesses of being beyond the conscious self, it overflows into the body. Very often this great rush of joy, this drinking of the freshets of the divine, brings back perfect health. Even in diseases that are at present called incurable, and that are purely physical, no one will deny the immense alleviation resulting from this new life.
Zest – the grated rind of lemon or orange – is a small ingredient with a big punch. Let’s use our imaginations when our friends are ill. A letter can be put by till they are ready to read it, but it may be read many times; a picture postcard can be propped by the bedside; a visit of a few minutes may bring a rush of joy; as might sitting outside with a friend. Mary Webb had been there, and her disease was called incurable.
We listen, hearing a faint call from afar. It is this sense of mystery – unfading, because the veil is never lifted – that gives glory to the countryside, tenderness to atmosphere. It is this that sends one man to the wilds, another to dig a garden; that sings in a musician’s brain; that inspires the pagan to build an altar and the child to make a cowslip-ball. For in each of us is implanted the triune capacity for loving his fellow and nature and the Creator of them.
These loves may be latent, but they are there; and unless they are all developed we cannot reach perfect manhood or womanhood. For the complete character is that which is in communion with most sides of life – which sees, hears, and feels most – which has for its fellows the sympathy of understanding, for nature the love that is without entire comprehension, and for the mystery beyond them the inexhaustible desire which surely prophesies fulfilment somewhere.
We would not encourage a child to make a cowslip ball today, though there seemed to be an abundance along the motorways this Spring, but that’s not a place to set a child gathering flowers!
Interesting how Mary Webb sees a complete human as having a triune nature, being ‘in communion with most sides of life’, not denying illness, frailty or failing. Let us not exclude the unfading sense of mystery, but be open to our sisters and brothers, our fellow creatures and the One who created all.
It does not matter how shut in we are. Opportunity for wide experience is of small account in this as in other things; it is depth that brings understanding and life. Dawn, seen through a sick woman’s window, however narrow, pulses with the same fresh wonder as it does over the whole width of the sea. A branch of flushed wild-apple brings the same joy as the mauve trumpet-flower of the tropics. One violet is as sweet as an acre of them. And it often happens – as if by a kindly law of compensation – that those who have only one violet find the way through its narrow, purple gate into the land of God, while many who walk over dewy carpets of them do not so much as know that there is a land or a way.
Mary Webb is drawing from the same spring as William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
We might remember those last two lines next time we are at Mass.
We walked home from church with a friend who wanted to see the bluebells in the wood. She had heard about them but did not know they were so close to home. A pleasure shared already, but she took pictures aplenty to share with her mother in East London, a pleasure further shared: her mother will enjoy not just the bluebells but the clear and infectious pleasure our friend received from them.
A gift that is special to an English spring.
A few days before we had walked that way with young Abel, who’s too small to damage the flowers as he walks, but he too loved the ‘blue flowers’: pleasure shared as a little child lets us into the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t often quote Rupert Brooke, but I remember …
the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven is reflected in that very English carpet, but I’m less sure about an English Heaven? One that welcomes people from around the world, I trust, or it would not be Heaven, just an off-shore island …
Wordsworth may have the fame when it comes to daffodils in verse, but in Shropshire last Spring we saw drifts of daffodils beside the roads, beneath the hedges, shining along the footpath edges … apologies; William is too easily parodied.
But I wondered why such county-wide devotion to a Welsh emblem: surely not love of the western neighbour? Rather love of the flower itself, and its defiance of lingering resistance from Winter’s rearguard winds.
And then I picked up Houseman, and these lines from A Shropshire Lad:
- The boys are up the woods with day
- To fetch the daffodils away,
- And home at noonday from the hills
- They bring no dearth of daffodils.
- Afield for palms the girls repair,
- And sure enough the palms are there,
- And each will find by hedge or pond
- Her waving silver-tufted wand.
- In farm and field through all the shire
- The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
- Ah, let not only mine be vain,
- For lovers should be loved again.
The girls’ palms are of course the pussy willow, whose ‘silver-tufted wands’ set off the Easter daffodils so splendidly in the vase.
How good to be reminded, even by the morbid Houseman, to link our native flora and ourselves, to the ‘Hebrew children’ who went to meet the Lord carrying olive branches, and singing ‘Hosanna!’
Pueri Hebraeorum, portantes ramos olivarum, obviaverunt Domino, clamantes et dicentes, Hosanna in Excelsis.
The Hebrew children, carrying olive branches, went out to meet the Lord, shouting out and saying, ‘Hosanna in the highest!’
Sheet music and recording of ‘Pueri Hebraeorum’
I’ve just read a new blogger, Kate. Have a look at her writing about suffering here .
The same day I had seen a man in town, offering ‘prayer for healing’ invitation cards. I was not up for a theological discussion at the time. Not that I wouldn’t mind a spot of healing. I have long-running pain after an assault. I have tried therapies from surgery to acupuncture. After being told by one expert doctor that he sees plenty of people like me who ‘by all we know should not have pain after so much time’ and that he could do no more, I try to carry the cross and get on with life. Very Lenten? Perhaps.
Kate offers a well-considered list of responses to long-term illness. The ideas make good sense theologically and psychologically. I would just add ‘count your blessings’.
Counting blessings – or acknowledging one worth recalling each day – ought to be part of anyone’s examination of conscience. I can always find at least one blessing, however small, to be grateful for. Thus my daughter’s eyes alighted on the snowdrops outside our door when she visited the day I wrote this: her delight was mine.
Remember the man by the library. I could have challenged him. What would healing mean for my condition? God taking away the pain or transforming it? How many go to Lourdes and return with their physical problem as it was in the beginning? I think I have to accept the possibility that the Lord can transform the pain, but also that accepting it may be slowing me down enough to stop and stare a little.
I leave you with the first heading on Kate’s list of ways to deal with chronic illness: Talk to God. Check out the rest of her post!
The Rood at Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Cambridge expresses in concrete prayer many of the ideas Kate and I touch on: suffering transformed, sacraments, creation, blessings.