“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” – Till We Have Faces
As I type this I’m staring at a bouquet of hydrangeas, pink roses, and lilies sitting in my window. Hydrangeas never last very long in a bouquet, perhaps it’s better to keep them on the bush, but who can resist the lively, colorful tufts? The roses have thrived in the window, expanding their petals, faces wide open, and the lilies are just shyly beginning to open. It’s tragic how short lived bouquets are, in the next week or two I will need to get rid of them, their petals dropping and leaves drooping, wilted. And yet, week after week I keep the vase filled. Am I merely Sisyphus rolling a stone up a hill? I don’t think so; the short life cycle of flowers isn’t a curse, but it serves as a reminder that the only constant is change. Last week, I had ruffled peonies in the vase, the week before tulips were in heavy supply. Each week ushers in a new flower, and despite the fact I know the flowers will die, I continue to purchase a bouquet week after week.
There is the ever pressing debate among my friends of the beach versus the mountains — which is more enjoyable, which is more beautiful. As someone who loves calm waters surrounded by trees, I mostly stay out of the debate, but no matter the preferred landscape, there is something inside us that is not soothed by the cement high rises of a city; we long for lush landscapes bursting with life.
As Lewis states in Weight of Glory:
We do not merely want to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Hiking mountains with friends, watching a sunset over a mountain ridge, no one says a word, we just soak in the magnificence. An early misty morning in kayaks on a lake, it’s chilly, there is the distant, mournful cry of the loon, our feet rest in the water. It feels like I’m dipping my toes into beauty.
I can recall a blustery December day with a dear friend in the National Cathedral in D.C., listening to Handel’s Messiah. Dressed in our fanciest, her green silk dress beside my blue velvet dress, bundled up in coats and listening to the Hallelujah chorus. I may not have cried in Toy Story 3, but my eyes watered on and off throughout the three hour performance. We can’t always express words when we encounter beauty, only we know it when we see or hear it. Listening to the music my body reacts to it by crying, on the lake my feet just naturally venture into the water. I’m instinctively trying to become part of it.
I think I’d love to spend every day in a grand cathedral listening to a masterpiece (or maybe I wouldn’t, the pew wasn’t terribly comfortable). But the reality is that I can’t spend everyday atop a mountain. Those breath-taking, awe-inspiring moments seem all too rare in my normal life. But I desire the beautiful. How do we as humans, hardwired for beauty, taste it and become it in the little mundane moments?
My own solution to this desire feels comically simple: I buy bouquets of flowers, lots of them, and I strewn them about my house. My purchases of flowers did not start with this deeper intention in my mind, it was a habit that slowly formed. “Grocery list: bread, eggs, milk, and flowers.” Even amidst the tight budget that first year out of college, there was always $3.99 reserved for a Trader Joe’s bouquet every other week. The life and beauty those bouquets brought were important to me, even if I wasn’t able to articulate why.
Back in high school, amidst a challenging season, my mom offered support in an unexpected way. I hadn’t been paying attention, but suddenly I noticed there was a bouquet of flowers on my bedside table. I was newly aware of the way I would gaze at the flowers before I went to bed, or how my eyes would seek them out first thing in the morning. Those little bouquets subtly whispering to me, “there is still life and beauty in this sometimes ugly world.” When the flowers began to fade a new bouquet would appear in the vase, not unlike the “magic” in A Little Princess (in reality the handiwork of my mom, but then again, isn’t kindness its own sort of magic?)
The bouquets will die in a few weeks, and keeping flowers only means another chore. Vases must be filled with water and eventually will need to be washed and scrubbed. But the point of beauty is not for it to be smooth, easy, or hassle free. To have the smell of peonies means there might be falling petals and grimy vases in my future, but it is worth that effort!
My eyes glance over the objects on my shelves. A gold lamp, the stacks of books, even my beloved typewriter, but my eyes dart black to the flowers, the bright green and bursting blooms draw me in. Something alive is sitting there on my shelf, though I know its time is fleeting, my gaze is drawn to the spray of pink and green. I must enjoy it while it is there, simply offering me its loveliness. I recently read Edith Schaeffer’s Hidden Art of Homemaking, a book I cannot recommend highly enough. There is a whole chapter dedicated to floral arrangements. The book essentially covers how to weave beauty into everyday life, but she struck a chord in why bouquets add so much to a home: “A floral arrangement is not a life-long treasure, but a constantly changing source of beauty, a continually fresh ‘finishing touch’ to the surroundings.”
My Saturday walks from the grocery store take on a different feeling with my flowers poking out of my groceries. Food to sustain my body and flowers for my soul. I’m rarely content with just one bouquet, so baby’s breath, carnations, and daisies overflow the brown paper bags. I find these bursting bags usually draw smiles as I walk back. Who can be unhappy carrying around bouquets? Who can be grouchy viewing someone cheerily carrying around flowers? The joy of standing in my kitchen, snipping the stems, arranging them in a vase, getting to handle the delicate flowers. By the time I have finished setting them up, I have to stand back and admire them for a bit.
In college I once walked through a little meadow of Lilies of the Valley (unable to resist their delightful smell), I had to pick them. I felt rather foolish walking across campus with my hands full of flowers. “What a silly childish thing to do,” I reprimanded myself walking across the quad. But I returned to my dorm room with the little lilies. I filled up an old soda bottle and tucked the lilies in, perching them in the window. It was later that same year on a hike with two dear friends who, when they saw wildflowers on the trail, sprinted ahead and immediately began to assemble bouquets to take back to campus. They felt no shame about this desire for beauty, and as we passed by others on the trail we were asked about where we gathered the flowers. Others were also enticed by the wildflowers on the trail. What I had assumed was childish whimsy in myself was actually an innate part of my inmost being. To see the glory and beauty of creation and to want to be a part of it was exactly what I was created to be and do.
Beauty is important to God. The Garden was designed to be beautiful, the fruit was to be pleasing to the eye. If we are created in the image of God, it means we also have this same sensitivity to beauty, a desire inside of us that causes me to dip my toes into the water, to shed tears at Handel, to add a bouquet of daisies to my grocery cart, and to rinse out vases week after week to fill them, once again, with flowers.
If you come into my house now there will be a bouquet in every room, typically two in my bedroom. Each bouquet offers a cheerful welcome to all who enter. Gone are the days of my feeling shame hauling flowers to and fro, for they are what bring me in touch with beauty, and through beauty, the glory of their Creator. And so I will refill my vases, week after week, and I’ll gaze at them each morning over coffee, inspect them when I arrive home from work, and take a final fond glance at them each night.
“And because it was so beautiful it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it.” – Till We Have Faces