When John Keating lectured his students in the hallway at Welton Academy he had Mr. Pitts read Robert Herrick’s famous poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Gather Ye rosebuds while ye may, the poem started and was repeated again and again by Keating until he began whispering in the ears of his students, carpe diem.
And with that scene from Dead Poets Society, new clichés were born. Carpe diem is, of course, the better worn than any others, but today I want to think about roses.
Gather Ye Rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
Why don’t we cliché to death scooping cat litter? Or dirty dishes? What about a morning without coffee? I’ve never heard anyone say, “That’s as bad as a morning without coffee.” I have heard, “Not until I have had my coffee.” But that’s different. There’s the implicit promise, or at least the expectation, of coffee. It’s coming. It just hasn’t arrived yet. What’s my point? I’m not sure. Maybe I don’t have one. But cat shit, dirty dishes, and no coffee: all these things are so evil they are near forbidden in the realm of clichés.
But the beautiful, the truly remarkable, the blooming roses of the world – we’ve clichéd to death. Here’s a list:
Every rose has a thorn.
Everything’s coming up roses.
The last rose of summer.
Pin a rose on your nose.
A rose by any other name.
A rose is a rose.
The burden of beauty is always to grow in every dimension. Beauty must push and stretch, bend and curve. Beauty must travel backwards in time and anticipate the future. Beauty cannot rest or take a break or grow stagnant lest it become trapped in a cliché satisfying the masses with thoughtless sentiments. Beauty is constantly resurrecting itself closer to the heavenly beauty. A cat litter box filled with poop feels no such obligation.
To really notice a rose is to slow down, to stop, and to consider. And by this I don’t mean we should “stop and smell the roses.” We should heed our relationship with the rose. That is where beauty resides: not in the thing itself but in its relationship with the observer. The beauty we see, feel, taste, hear, and touch is contingent on another beauty, an ultimate beauty residing in us, if nothing else, as an image of perfection.
“I am the Rose of Sharon,” goes The Song of Solomon. “We can also take this passage as referring to each individual soul,” wrote Origen, the great biblical exegete of the third century. “To a soul whose simplicity and evenness and equity entitle it to be called a field, the Word of God may be said to become the Flower…But for such as are already seeking deeper things and pondering matters less to be seen on the surface… [the soul is] breaking forth in the midst of the thorns.”
The cliché dies when we stop and consider that in some manner of speaking, we are the rose. We are the co-creators of this world by our relationship with it. Gardening the primal seed and bulb and grain is the task of beauty handed to humanity when God created Adam in a garden. And this is why the resurrected Christ returns from the dead surrounded by flowers and plants, trees and shrubs. This is why he is correctly identified by Mary Magdalene as a gardener – that is, the new Adam, the new gardener.
(To deny our relationship and obligation for the created order, to deny climate change, to not worry about pollution, to infringe on creation without worry of harm is a denial of the relationship God created us for from the very beginning. To celebrate the risen Christ is to also acknowledge the garden from where our new creation comes.)
It has been noted that roses bloom according to a formula known as the Fibonacci series. Fn = Fn-1 +Fn-2 for all n. I have no idea what that means except fancy letters and numbers panicking humanities students into existential crisis. I do know that it somehow means
0 + 1 = 1
1 + 1 = 2
1 + 2 = 3
2 + 3 = 5
3 + 5 = 8
5 + 8 = 13.
And this pattern will continue until the Lamb of God grabs the great mathematical dragon by the throat and cast him into the lake of fire – which of course is the study of mathematics and my 12th grade algebra teacher.
This mathematical formula creates the spiral arms of galaxies, the little shells that snails carry on their backs, the structure of pinecones and pineapples and phyllotaxis. A phyllotaxis is the pattern of leaves or pedals around the stem of a flower. Roses are no exception. A mathematician might say that this Fibonacci sequence is what determines beauty. I would disagree. It is beauty that determines what is mathematically elegant. This can’t be proven. Call it faith or religion, slap the label of superstition on it if it makes you feel comfortable. I choose to call it a confession: creation is far more mysterious than explanation. The two hands of God, as Saint Irenaeus wrote of God’s creative agency, reaches too easily beyond the grasp of intellect. And when the human mind is supplanted by silicon, mystery and beauty, if they are different things at all, will still march from what is finite to the infinite, from what is comprehensible to the incomprehensible.
This Fibonacci series is the same pattern that brought out of nothing Adam. And it is out of Adam that Christ appears. From Christ, we find our life. 0 + 1 = 1; 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3. Beauty creates the symmetry to our existence in Christ, and we can see all of this in the pedals of the rose. But to see it we must first acknowledge our relationship with the rose, that is, with the created order.
The mediation of God’s glory is the unity of beauty. “The rose is without why,” says the German mystic Angelus Silesius. But the Christian mind must actively seek that which the rose knows not to ask. And in that way, we partner with the rose as Christ partners with us. We can interpret the beauty for the rose as Christ interprets our beauty. It is a sequence of grace curving around itself into the eternity that numbers can never quite reach. While we may ask why on the rose’s behalf, we will have to be satisfied with wonder.
A faith that is only looking towards heaven, a faith solely concerned with evil, a faith trying to save sinners from the fires of hell will never “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Faith has to actually be present in this world, the beautiful world, to push and bend, to grow and stretch, to be dynamic. Otherwise all we are doing is wilting into a cliché.