Tell me, O rose, what thing it is
That now appears, now vanishes?
When the American poet Edwin Markham wrote these words, he was referring to a humming bird, hovering delicately around a rose. However, his words serve to accentuate the life which is encouraged by a single rose – the wide ecology it supports: from bees, welcome pollinators, to aphids, perhaps not so welcome for gardeners. A world of life can be found in a rose … if only we look for it.
There is a single rose plant in my garden which serves as my indicator for the climate of a year. It is a modern breed of rose, so it will bloom as frequently in a year as the extent of good weather permits. If that rose plant blooms twice in a year, the year’s weather has not been good; it has been dull and damp. But, if it blooms a third time, the year’s weather has been sunnier, warmer and drier. A country’s climate in a single rose bush.
Advent is often presented to us as a time of waiting – waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. True, it is a time of preparation – to celebrate both our collective memory of the historical birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago, and the yearly spiritual rebirth of Christ within each one of us at Christmas. We have a natural tendency to run to the future, and disregard the present. The teenager wishes herself into adulthood and the freedom to make personal choices. The patient in hospital wishes ahead to the week after next, when his surgery is over. The child wishes the days away to Christmas and presents. In all the created order, we humans have a unique ability, God-given, to envision the future. But with that gift comes a challenge – the challenge to appreciate the present and live this unrepeatable moment.
The challenge in Advent is not simply to look forward to Christmas, but to live the present moment, to appreciate that spiritual preparation is itself an opportunity, but one that can only be properly lived in the present, not stretching always for the future.
One way to hold ourselves in the present is to appreciate that much of our world can be seen in something small – in much the same way as I see a year’s variation of our climate in the flowering pattern of a single rose plant. This is in the tradition of western mysticism, perhaps not often enough spoken of, with fine examples in St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Sit with the present. Hold the present. Be aware of the gift that God gives us in these early days of Advent.
The challenge is not to rush ahead into the future, but to be aware that the gift we have from God is ‘now’, and we can situate our spiritual preparation in contemplating the smallest of details in this present moment; in the words of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Paul McCafferty is a priest of the Diocese of Derry