Wednesday 12 December 2018

The Rose and the Lily

Flowers are one of the most perfect symbols of the divine. Can you imagine heaven without them? It would be like heaven without beauty. The splendour of colour points clearly to spiritual reality, and flowers (together with, perhaps, birds) are the most perfect embodiment of colour in this world. Of course, the earthbound mentality will say that the colour of flowers has just evolved to attract insects for the purpose of pollination. But if you really believe that then your spiritual senses are not functioning as they should and you have suppressed something vital within yourself. Floral colour may well have such a purpose on one level, for the angelic powers are quite capable of combining material practicality with spiritual meaning, but it is very much secondary. The spiritual always takes precedence over the material even if the material also has its own rights.

Flowers are gifts that God has given fallen humanity to remind us of our true home and real state of being. Mystics often describe the higher worlds in terms of the glory of their colour. This is where we originally come from and to where, God willing, we shall return. That is why flowers can speak to us in such a profound way. Don't forget that Eden was a garden. It is fair to assume it was full of flowers, with the gentle buzz of bees and the song of birds joyously celebrating creation.

If we try to imagine the process of God creating, a useful image is to picture the pure white light of divine oneness splintering into colour, the seven colours of the spectrum. Some esoteric cosmologies describe these in terms of rays which reflect God's qualities, starting with the primary ones of Will, Love and Intelligence, and then secondary ones which different systems think of in different ways. The pagan gods and goddesses in their highest forms, and the planets, astrologically considered, might also represent this level of reality.

So colour is very significant in the context of creation. However, when we look out into the universe, we don't really see any colour at all, certainly not when we look with the naked eye. It is all rather monochrome. So our most vivid experience of colour is through the plant kingdom, and specifically flowers which also give us our most perfect experiences of scent. Again, there is a mundane explanation for that but it doesn't begin to cover the phenomenon in any depth. It may be able to satisfy our curiosity on a purely materialistic level but it leaves the imagination unsatisfied, and it does so because it is a partial explanation which only takes into account the lowest level of being. When we respond to the fragrant scent of a rose, we know this explanation is superficial, and we know it because we are reminded of something very real which is otherwise absent from this world. That is spiritual quality.

In terms of symbolism, the rose is one of the most profound of physical objects. But it is multi-layered for it can stand for both heavenly perfection and earthly passion. Then there are the different qualities of the red and the white rose, the red standing for charity and martyrdom (the association with Christ's blood) and the white for innocence and purity. You can see the red as the white that has been through experience and suffering and transformed these into love, while the white is the red purified, spiritualised and returned to the state of divine sanctity. Fertility and virginity. Both are included in the symbolism of the rose. The power of the symbol is that no one interpretation can cover everything about it. It reveals new things at different levels, depending on how you are looking.

The rose symbolises the pleroma, the central beauty and perfection of life and God. It is a powerful image of holiness with its petals always unfolding to reveal deeper truths and greater mystery. A rose garden is the symbol of paradise, and the rose itself stands for nothing less than the heart, not the physical pump but the centre of being where is to be found the divine presence.

An Illustration for Dante's Paradiso from a 15th century manuscript

On a less profound level, the rose, of course, is the flower of England. I recently read that Pliny thought Albion might have been so named 'from the white roses with which it abounds' which is not the usual explanation but worth mentioning as it puts the association of the flower with the country way back.

The rose is the image of spiritual completion.

Hardly less profound a symbol is the lily. This is the flower of the Virgin Mary and all that is associated with her, purity, grace, peace, humility. Here is a picture of the archangel Gabriel holding a lily at the Annunciation.

The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Perhaps of all the flowers, feminine things in themselves, the lily is the truest symbol of femininity, particularly femininity in its purest aspects which means those closest to God and best reflecting the reality that is the Divine Feminine. Its straight stalk is the mind centred in truth, its slender leaves stand for humility, its whiteness is innocence and its fragrance is love*. But the lily is also a common flower used at funerals and for mourning which may be because of its associations with immortality but also transience. Symbols can be complex things due to the fact that they are doorways to the archetypal realm which is the realm of poetry and meaning, not hard physical facts. Consequently, they can include within themselves meanings that, at first sight, might seem almost contradictory. But these meanings are reconciled at the spiritual level where they are seen as different aspects of a single reality.

Spiritual truth can often be accessed more easily through images than through words because the image bypasses the thinking mind and so can be a more direct route to truth. There are certain objects in creation that speak clearly and distinctly of higher realities and of these the rose and the lily are amongst the most eloquent.

* I took these associations from An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J. C. Cooper.


ChrisZ said...

Sherlock Holmes makes much the same association about the divine significance of flowers, particularly the rose, in the story "The Naval Treaty" (the last story Conan Doyle published, incidentally, before sending Holmes to a sacrificial death against the powers of evil embodied in Professor Moriarty). It is very much a Holmesian endorsement to "consider the lillies of the field," as another great observer of flowers once put it.

I agree that the "evolutionary" objection to such musings about flowers, based on the utility of color and fragrance to attract insects, is obtuse in the extreme, and shows an utter failure of moral imagination. If we *must* consider flowers in evolutionary terms, the relevant question to my mind is: "Why do *human beings* have the faculty to appreciate them, and even perceive them as beautiful?" What form of evolutionary fitness accrued from such a faculty, beyond the spiritual satisfaction?

William Wildblood said...

Yes, the evolutionary explanation, while perfectly reasonable in its own terms, really only covers a small part of why we find flowers beautiful. As is often the case in such situations, the correct interpretation for the reason behind a particular thing is not either/or but both/and.

Anonymous said...

David Deutsch has elaborated on the evolutionary explanation: objective beauty exists and is a reliable way to communicate across a 'species gap'. Which is why humans and not just insects are attracted to flowers.

-- Tom Robinson