What’s in a rose?
In contemporary culture, we often give flowers as gifts. On my better days, a thought may cross my mind: “Maybe I should pick up some flowers for my wife, perhaps some roses, to recall our wedding day. She’d like that.” And on my really good days I listen to this prompting of the Spirit. But lately I’ve been wondering, what is the theological meaning of the flower or the rose? What does it say, finally, about who we are before God?
Consider, if you will, two rather floral theological passages. The first is from Origen’s treatise On Prayer: “‘All flesh is grass’; and its glory, which is shown in the so-called beauty of women and boys, is compared to a flower according to the prophetic word [of Isaiah]: ‘All flesh is grass, and all its glory like a flower of grass. The grass has withered, and the flower has fallen; but the Word of the Lord stands forever” (XVII.2).
The second is from Angelus Silesius’ much-discussed mystic poem, Without Why: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms; it cares not for itself; asks not if it’s seen.”
The flower, in Origen’s reading of Isaiah, is a figure of the ephemeral quality of earthly glory, a symbol of decay, of nothingness. It is only a pale and evanescent shadow of true divine beauty. In Angelus, the rose comes forth as a nonchalant and yet wondrous appearance, which refuses rational or utilitarian explanation. Angelus’ blooming bloom is retrieved by Heidegger as an icon of his theory of truth as disclosure, of his sense of being as phenomenal (see John Caputo’s study, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, pp. 60ff). I’m not totally sure what to make of these diverse reflections. But I will say that, in each case, a flower is never merely a flower. It unfurls the truth of our condition, as delicately posed between being and nothingness, or as a vulnerable flourishing which impossibly embraces both.
To challenge Origen a bit, one might suggest that the creaturely conversion to divine beauty cannot forget the rose which passes away, the life which lives in the shadows of being. God loves the flowers of the field, and not only the immaterial soul (if there is such a thing). What would heaven be without a single rose? But in response to Heidegger’s reading of Angelus, one might inquire whether another forgetting of being may be discerned here, of being in its permanence, in its eternal logos, for the “Word of the Lord stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6). There is something, then, to Origen’s contrast, which distinguishes the beauty of being more carefully from nothingness, but also something to a discipline of thinking which locates beauty precisely in its fragile and fleeting occurrences.
To give a flower is nothing, or almost nothing, and yet in another sense it’s everything, all that there is to give.