We concluded last week’s reflection with a story familiar to many of you, called The Gift. I’ll repeat it here and add a brief comment
In one seat a wispy old man sat holding a bunch of fresh flowers. Across the aisle was a young woman whose eyes came back again and again to the man’s flowers. The time came for the old man to get off. Impulsively he handed the flowers to the young woman,. “I can see you love the flowers,” he explained, “and I think my wife would like for you to have them. I’ll tell her I gave them to you.” She accepted the flowers, then watched the old man get off the bus and walk through the gate of a small cemetery.
The story focuses on two generations, the old man and the young woman, and the relationship between them. The key image in the story is that of flowers. Flowers are beautiful, but short-lived, and are often given as a gift expressive of love, as is the case in this story.
Flowers express the beauty of life. Over and above fruits and vegetables which are necessary to stay alive, to survive, flowers express the something more of life, its value and meaning. A world without the colour and beauty of flowers would be like a world without music or art or story. These help us not only to stay alive but to live gratefully. Beyond being alive they help us to come alive and to be more fully alive. We need not simply to be alive but to come alive and to be fully alive.
Flowers also express the brevity of life, despite its beauty, since they bloom and fade, but are renewed again in the spring. They reflect the cycle of the seasons of life, the winters and springs of our life as well, as we have mentioned in the story of Demeter and Persephone. This theme is also reflected in the lyrics of the song, The Rose. “When the night has been too lonely/ And the road has been too long/ And you think that love is only/ For the lucky and the strong/ Just remember in the winter/ Far beneath the bitter snows/ Lies the seed that with the sun’s love/In the spring becomes the rose.”
Flowers also express love. They are intended as a gift from the heart to the heart. The old man gives to the young woman the flowers that he had originally intended to give to his wife, and expresses that this would be her wish as well. The “heart” of the story is precisely the transfer, so to speak, of the love of the man for his wife to the young woman, the next generation. The love of the man for his wife is not frozen or stuck by her death. Rather, he has allowed that love to continue to “bloom” by passing it on to another generation. The love he has shared with his wife, and her wish as well, is not to stop with her death, but to continue to be shared.
The story reflects the conviction of Erich Fromm, that love is not merely a bond with one person, but an underlying attitude and character development of the whole person. It is a matter of the kind of person we are, and of our underlying capacity to love, which we bring into any particular situation. It implies being in touch with our own sacred worth and thereby able to see and respond to that worth in others. Of course, the degree of connection, contact, and intimacy will vary from situations of close friendship to occasional encounters with a cashier at a store. Yet the recognition and respect of their personhood would be present in every situation, granted this is a difficult and only gradually and incompletely realized challenge.
This evolving process is portrayed beautifully in the story of The Secret Garden. In this story, a young girl, Mary Lennox, is orphaned and comes to live with her uncle, Archie who had lost his wife, Lily, some years previously. In his grief, his heart is closed and locked, reflected in the sickness and seeming paralysis of his son, Colin. The whole situation is expressed in the image of the physical or outer garden which has been closed and locked since Lily’s death. Archie has locked both the outer garden, and his own inner garden, the garden of his heart. As the story unfolds, both gardens are gradually opened again, and the love of Archie for his wife awakens and flowers again in his love for his son, Colin and his niece, Mary.
The story suggests that, despite, through, and beyond unbearably difficult losses, it is important for all of us to struggle to keep open or to re-open, to cultivate, and to share with one another, the secret garden of our own hearts.
In this vein, the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, writes: “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”
Contemporary Buddhist meditation teacher and writer, Sharon Salzberg writes in Real Change. of what she calls equanimity. “Equanimity means being with pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, in such a way that ouyr hearts are fully open and whole, intact. … Equanimity can be described as the voice of wisdom, beoimng open to everything, able to hold everything. Its essence is complete presence.“
Like the words of Rumi and Salburg, The Secret Garden suggests, in story form, that if we pass through the sufferings, betrayals, and deaths, that are part of life, and into the secret garden of our heart, we will discover the seeds of new life that flourish in wisdom and love, and move towards a fuller and richer meaning, one that finds expression in an ever expanding outreach in justice and compassion.
May the joy and sorrow of your life heal, open, and expand the secret garden of your heart, so that you sense more deeply your own sacredness and that of all that is, however hidden; and may it flower in a wisdom and compassion that gives meaning to your own life and enriches those whose lives you touch,
Remembering my brother, Mike, who died November 19, 1972
Norman King, November 21, 2021