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May Flowers

June 20, 2004

Bible Reading

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)

Read also: Genesis 2:4-15

Reading from Swedenborg

The budding and fruiting of a tree represent a person's rebirth. Its greening with leaves represents the first state, blossoming the second, which is right before rebirth, and fruiting the third, which is the character of those who have been reborn. "Leaves" symbolize the matters of intelligence, or the truths of faith, for these are the first things of the rebirth or regeneration. "Blossoms" symbolize the things of wisdom, or the goods of faith, because these come right before rebirth or regeneration. And "fruits" symbolize things that are part of life, which are acts of kindness, because these follow and form the character of those who have been reborn.

These things exist in the vegetable kingdom because the spiritual world flows in. People who attribute everything to nature and nothing to the Divine cannot believe this. But people who attribute everything to the Divine and nothing to nature can see not only that everything is from the Divine, but also that everything has a correspondence, and is therefore symbolic. And finally they can see that all of nature is a theater representing the Lord's kingdom, so that the Divine is in every last detail of nature.

If we knew anything about rebirth, we would see in flowers a representation of the human state before rebirth. People then blossom in a similar way from the good of intelligence and wisdom. They have inner gladness and beauty, because they are then in the effort to implant in their life the good things of intelligence and wisdom, which is producing fruit. (Arcana Coelestia #5116)

Sermon

Today we are going to talk about flowers. There is no better subject at this time of year. And when we search the writings of the New Church for divine wisdom on flowers, there is a wealth of information to be found, on more than a single level. We find pleasure in flowers on more than a single level, too: we enjoy planning and planting them, growing them and tending them as they grow. We enjoy giving them and getting them, and we enjoy just having them around. What is it about flowers?

Here is a story about a man who discovered flowers growing in heaven, from Arcana Coelestia #4529:

A certain person who had been famous and renowned in the learned world because of his expert knowledge of botany heard in the next life, after he had died, that flowers and trees could be found in that life also. At this he was astounded; and because botany had been the delight of his life, he was burning with the desire to see whether what he had heard was true. He was therefore taken to the paradise gardens where he saw beautiful plantations of trees and lovely flower beds extending in all directions.

Because he had now entered into his heart's desire, he was allowed to wander through those grounds and not only to see each thing growing there, but also to pluck it, hold it up to his eye, and examine whether it was really what it appeared to be. He spoke to me from there and said that he had never believed anything such as this, and that if people in the world were to hear of such things they would regard them as absurdities. He went on to say that the flowers visible there were more abundant than those he had seen at any time in the world, and could scarcely be appreciated by any worldly kind of perception.

He also said that each flower glows with unimaginable brightness because it was a product of the light of heaven. He was not as yet able to perceive that the glowing had a spiritual origin, namely, that in each one there existed some measure of intelligence and wisdom--the attributes of truth and good--as the source of their glowing. He said further that people on earth would never believe this, because few believe in the existence of heaven or hell.

That story alone is delightful on its surface. What a wonderful image of heaven, and this man's great happiness in being there! But when we examine it a little, there is more to the story. The flowers in those gardens "glowed with the light of heaven," it said, because there was in them "something of intelligence and wisdom, which are the attributes of truth and good." What might that mean? Truth and good are the two attributes of the Lord himself, and in operation they go forth from the Lord, flowing into the spiritual world, and from there into the natural. They glowed because the creative power of the Lord was shining forth from them! Imagine what that might look like. . . .

This man was new to the next life, and we are told that he didn't yet understand what this glowing was all about. Yet he could still see the glowing! There is a lesson in this. He could see the effects of spiritual causes even though he didn't understand them. We do that every day. For example, with flowers: they are beautiful effects of even more beautiful causes, but understand them or not, the flowers are there for our enjoyment.

Seeing effects and perceiving that they have unseen causes is what spirituality is all about. The spiritual life is living the awareness that there are spiritual causes, whether we fully perceive them or not. With practice and perfection, we can learn to see these causes more clearly all the time. The angels see them plainly. With no effort, they perceive the marvelous spiritual depth to all the things in their experience. Imagine what that might be like. . . .

But we are not angels. We are natural. How can we expect to do this? Can we see the light of heaven glowing from a natural flower? Yes. We can see it in our mind's eye, because we know that it is there. How do we know? We are told so in Arcana Coelestia #4529. And we are told this in other places too. Listen to Arcana Coelestia #3942:

Among the ancient people who were in the church, all fruits and flowers were symbolic. For they knew that all nature is a theater representative of the Lord's kingdom, and that each thing represents some specific thing in the spiritual world, and therefore also each fruit and flower.

This is about spiritual causes for natural things. There is more:

I have spoken to angels about representatives, suggesting that the plant kingdom on earth included nothing that was not representative of the Lord's kingdom. They replied that everything beautiful and glorious in the plant kingdom has its origin in the Lord by way of heaven, and that when celestial and spiritual influences from the Lord enter nature, such things are really created--and that this is the origin of the vegetative soul or life. So they are representatives. (Arcana Coelestia #1632)

They are representatives, created by the operation of correspondence with the spiritual causes from which they flow. This is spiritual influence from the Lord right into our world for us to see, in the form of natural things.

And if we do not perceive the spiritual causes? If we don't even know about them? The things are still there. But if we do? The writings of Swedenborg tell us this:

A tree appears before the eyes lush with branches, leaves, and fruits. All these are effects. But if you could examine all the parts of a tree--the filaments within a branch, the fibers in a leaf, every single invisible part in a fruit, the invisible parts of a seed--you would see that countless indescribable things lie hidden from our eyes. Once the interior, or spiritual parts of a flower were opened before the angels. When they saw this, they said that it was as if there was a whole paradise within it, constructed of indescribable things. (De Verbo #50)

So do flowers glow with the light of heaven? You decide.

We have learned that there are spiritual causes for natural things. If we learn to "see" them with our mind's eye, we might see whole paradises within every created thing that we encounter. Imagine the infinite dimensions that are present in every ordinary experience! It boggles the mind. But these spiritual correspondences are not there just for our enjoyment alone (although that is reason enough for them). They are also there to instruct us in the nature of spiritual reality. There are lessons in those correspondences to remind us of our eternal, spiritual lives, and the mechanisms by which they work.

Our topic here is the flowering plants of the natural world--angiosperms to be specific. Angiosperms are the crown of the plant kingdom, surpassing in complexity and design all other plants--the algae, the mosses, the ferns, and the conifers--in the unique way that they reproduce. They make seeds from marvelously complex organs called flowers, and enclose those seeds in a tough, nutrient-rich protective organ called the fruit. There is nothing else like them in all the living world.

Given the knowledge that natural things have spiritual causes and spiritual lessons to teach, what might we expect to learn from the flowering plants in our natural world? Here are some correspondences: Leaves correspond to things of intelligence, or "truths of faith," blossoms to things of wisdom, or "goods of faith," and fruits to things of life, or "the works of charity." These three things together make a complete set--a "trine," as it is called in Swedenborg's writings--found in all things of creation. It is the trine of good, truth, and the two of these together in action.

Our reading from Swedenborg tells us that there is a model of our regeneration in the flowering plants simple enough for children to understand, but deep theology nonetheless--a model of the step-by-step nature of our journey to the Lord's kingdom.

How does this model work? Simply stated, blossoms represent the spiritual state before regeneration, and the fruit that comes forth from the blossom represents a person's spiritual rebirth. Stated more completely, the lesson is this: a person's regeneration is a process, and it resembles the growth of an embryo. And although this growth process is continuous, it can be divided into three main developmental stage, or spiritual states:

  1. "Becoming green from the leaves" is the first state, called repentance, presented to our senses as the first greening of spring--the tiny leaves unfurling from their buds; the trees awakening from their dormant period of life.
  2. "Blossoming" is the second state, called reformation, manifested as the blooming of all the flowering plants as spring comes into fullness.
  3. "Fruiting" is the third state, the state of regeneration itself.

Note that this last is another state, or developmental stage along the way to spiritual perfection, but it is not the destination. Perfection is a thing we do eternally: even the angels of the highest heaven continue to develop in spiritual perfection. Only the Lord is that perfection itself. Regeneration is a verb--an action word. It never stops moving forward. And here's the good news: you don't have to be perfect to be regenerating--only in stage three.

Greening, blossoming, and fruiting: there's the trine again:

  1. Truth: knowing right from wrong; the spiritual state when the light comes on. Here we know that there is good and evil, and that there is a world of difference between the two. It is the doorway into the kingdom of heaven. That's repentance.
  2. Good: seeing that good is to be done and evil shunned; desiring to do good from the knowledge of it; the decision to change the direction of one's life in the direction of heaven. That's reformation.
  3. These two bearing fruit in operation: that's called charity; doing truth because of the obvious good that the truth leads to. That's regeneration.

These are the spiritual principles of regeneration visibly presented to your eyes, out your window, every moment of every spring day. It is right out there: the spiritual lesson of regeneration, in "all nature, a theater representative of the Lord's kingdom," with "the Divine in every particular."

Sometimes just for fun, I used to tell my Environmental Biology students that my goal for the course was to ruin them; to fix them so that they couldn't go out in nature, couldn't even drive down the road anymore, without seeing food chains, photosynthesis, energy and materials in motion, changing landforms, competition--all those natural processes that together make up the living world. "No more just enjoying nature," I would tell them. "Those days are gone. Now you're educated."

But in reality, the opposite was true. Knowledge of those hidden processes makes nature all the more fascinating, and all the more beautiful as well, because with a knowledge of the causes, the effects are that much more delightful. And that's exactly what our readings are telling us about knowledge of the spiritual causes of natural things. How much more delightful is spring when we know what greening, blossoming, and fruiting are all about! Does it make them any less delightful in the purely natural sense? On the contrary. The delight is infinitely multiplied. What did the angels find when they opened a flower in heaven? "A whole paradise, constructed of indescribable things." Will knowing that our regeneration is "now showing" in the theater representative of the Lord's kingdom diminish our enjoyment of spring and all it has to offer to the senses? I don't think so.

It is interesting to look at the sequence of events in the Garden of Eden story. The Lord created the man first, it says: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." But where could the Lord put him? "The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed." And what did the Lord put in that garden, with the man? What did he consider essential for his habitation? "And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food." That's the flowering plants--the angiosperms that the Lord gave the man, with all that they represent. "And then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it." God knew the delight that tending it and keeping it would bring.

The Lord doesn't do anything by accident. Creation, down to the last detail, has purposes within purposes, uses within uses, and spiritual meanings embedded within the obvious appearances of all things. These meanings are correspondences: spiritual strings tied to natural things--strings that we can follow; that will lead us inward to the kingdom of heaven. The poet William Blake knew about correspondences. They were more real to him than the natural things that they represent. Here is how he described it:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball.
It will lead you in at Heaven's Gate,
Built in Jerusalem's Wall.
(Jerusalem, 77:1-4)

Flowers. They are everywhere this time of year. Enjoy them. Let your senses delight in their colors, their forms, and their fragrances. Enjoy this season for the natural pleasure that it brings. That's what it's for. It is like the Garden of Eden: the Lord made it for us, and put us in it to tend and keep it. But don't forget to let your higher mind delight in the spiritual lesson of every detail of the season. That's what it's for as well. Amen.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the glory of your Creation--the garden you have provided for us, to tend and keep. Help us to rise above the merely natural pleasures of your springtime, and see the spiritual message you have embedded there, of our spiritual journey toward you and your eternal kingdom, "as in heaven so upon the earth." Amen.

Rev. Dr. Reuben P. Bell