I’ve decided that I don’t like orchids that much.
I feel hesitant writing this because I was given one as a gift recently. I thought the orchid was beautiful and so it now sits prominently on our console. The petals are wedding dress white with a fuchsia centre. The stem has been attached to a twig so that the plant is trained to stay upright – held straight, its potential for unruliness tamed.
Watching this orchid day by day, week by week, its tender beauty has faded for me, and I’m trying to articulate why. There are gardeners who spend lifetimes carefully growing orchids. I know there are many classifications and complexities to the flower that experts can wax lyrical about. But sometimes, I look at my orchid and can’t tell whether it is real or plastic. It doesn’t seem to move, breathe or change – it stays the same, day-in, day-out. I check everyday for some signs of movement, but I simply cannot discern any, even when I put my glasses on, holding the plant up to the light while I squint.
People often complain that cut flowers in particular die too quickly. What is the point in buying them? Does the orchid become an ideal gift because of its longevity? To my eyes, my orchid’s beautiful permanence can make it look lifeless, a fabrication that doesn’t belong to the world we actually inhabit. Like the other-worldly elves in The Lord of the Rings who never seem to age (If they do grow older, it happens slowly, taking thousands of years) – the orchid stays the same, untouched by the passage of time that visibly affects the rest of us.
One unified characteristic of being human is that we are all affected by time. We age; we change; we are impacted by the good and terrible of this planet – and then we die. Impermanence and scarring are our marks. We are merely passing through.
One unified characteristic of being human is that we are all affected by time. We age; we change; we are impacted by the good and terrible of this planet – and then we die. Impermanence marks us. We are merely passing through. Click To Tweet
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by death. It’s not that I think morbid thoughts all the time or spend time consciously thinking about death, but it’s fascinating to me that we all – each and every one of us – cease to exist at some point in our lives. Every human being on the planet has died or will experience death, yet it is something that we willfully ignore. We proceed onwards with our daily lives as though this sobering truth exists on the same level as knowing that summer precedes autumn and spring follows winter.
Perhaps Dr. Ernest Becker’s thesis in The Denial of Death, winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, is all too true. People are terrorized by a sense of their own mortality and seek to deny this in order to function normally in their lives. Closely associated with this denial is our culture’s endless attempt at trying to distract us from our own mortality. According to Becker, we are simultaneously “small gods” and “food for worms,” and if we were continually awake to these paradoxical truths, we would not be able to function properly in life, debilitated by this confrontative reality.
In light of this reality, I found James K. A. Smith’s recent book How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now a welcome read as it attempts to help us “embrace our temporality,” thinking soberly about what to do with the time we have been given. Smith’s books usually look at topics from a theological, philosophical, and cultural point of view, and thus these intersecting perspectives work well in wrestling with matters of our own mortality.
The central thesis of Smith’s work concerns the notion of spiritual timekeeping, or “living out the faith with a disciplined temporal awareness” (Smith, p. 16). Smith critiques much of Christian culture and practice which seems to express faith in a timeless, disembodied realm, rather than to “inhabit time” as we live. He argues that to be human means to live in a particular time and context, and this particularity requires discernment of the time we are living in. We then judge how this affects us, seeking to remain grounded in our time rather than trying to escape it through pseudo-spiritualizing ourselves beyond our context. According to Smith, our fascination with “end times” is an example of living “ahistorically,” waiting for chronos time to tick on until the return of Jesus.
Most Christian culture expresses faith in a timeless, disembodied realm, rather than “inhabiting time” as we live. To be human means to live in a particular time and context; this particularity requires careful discernment. Click To Tweet
Smith argues that to live with the practice of spiritual timekeeping means that we “discern where the Spirit’s restoration is already afoot in creation’s groaning” (Smith, p. 18). As we do so, we can join in with the work of the Spirit as the Spirit manifests in a particular context and time in our history. Our concern then becomes how we can faithfully live in the present moment, even as we wait for ‘Kingdom come’ without being defined by the zeitgeist (Smith, p. 100).
In a chapter entitled “Embrace the Ephemeral: How to Love What You’ll Lose,” Smith poignantly encourages the reader to become acquainted with loss and to even find beauty in that sensation as it awakens us to the truth of our temporality. He writes:
Ephemerality is not something that befalls creation; it is a feature of finitude. Aging is not a curse; autumn is not a punishment; not all that is fleeting should be counted as loss…There is no way of being a creature that is not subject to the vicissitudes of time. Even resurrected bodies change (Smith, p. 101).
To be human is to know we are finite creatures.
Let’s return to my orchid, which I am now feeling a bit sorry for since I picked on the poor plant so much earlier in this piece. It strikes me that an orchid is an example of what we sometimes struggle for but can never achieve: the semblance of immortality. Perhaps orchids do belong to another world and might even mysteriously point to it. A sign of heaven, nirvana, or Valhalla? This realization is achingly beautiful as well.
An orchid is an example of what we sometimes struggle for but can never achieve: the semblance of immortality. Perhaps orchids belong to another world and even point mysteriously to it. A sign of heaven, nirvana, or Valhalla? Click To Tweet
But when we notice the life cycle of most flowers – they brown, shrivel, and become fragile – I wonder if this can help us to accept that we are finite. Flowers are not supposed to last forever. Instead, they remind us of our humanity – that we change, we transform, we age, and then we die. We might choose to do things that attempt to freeze us in time – botox, which will petrify our facial lines for a while, trying to halt the inevitable; or taking endless supplements and applying skin-care lotions that keep us looking other-worldly. However, again I am forced to ask: Might this stop us from accepting our humanity gracefully?
Flowers have a beauty that is fleeting, here one day and gone the next, and this can point to our own delicate transience – we are passing through. I like that. There is a humility and realism there – a groundedness that is humane and attractive. Sometimes when I look at flowers, which I love to buy and display in my home, I am in awe of their beauty; but there’s also a sadness in knowing they won’t last. Is this activity of mine a waste? What’s the point? Why buy them? If I’m honest, we could ask the same question about our lives. Is a life wasted because of its temporality? Whether a life or a flower, both are meant to be fully appreciated for that particular moment in time, and then they are gone.
Perhaps we should be buying more flowers as a spiritual practice to help us come to terms with our own fleeting temporality. Maybe we should even make it a habit to carefully watch those flowers as they change color and brown, eventually withering away, returning to the earth. This doesn’t have to be macabre or hopeless, because we watch and observe this transformation in the hope that we will better appreciate the time we do have as a blessed gift.
And ultimately, we watch this change in the hope that, after this final transformation, our cells will transfigure and morph, and then we will become fully ourselves – something we only get a partial glimpse of here and now.
Perhaps we should buy more flowers as a spiritual practice to help us come to terms with our own fleeting temporality. Maybe we should even make it a habit to carefully watch those flowers as they brown, eventually withering away. Click To Tweet
Rev. Dr. Karina Kreminski is Co-Director of Neighbourhood Matters. She has been a Senior Minister in the Church and was Missiology Lecturer at Morling College in Sydney. Karina has a doctorate in missional formation and writes regularly about life, spirituality, mission and theology. She loves forming people for leadership and speaks regularly at churches and conferences on neighbourhood and community mission and activism. She has written a book called Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighbourhood and is a consultant for Uniting Mission and Education.