“Those flowers have got to go,” said my friend John, a church sacristan. “They’re leftovers from Tuesday’s funeral, and they’re falling apart all over the sanctuary. Besides, they stink.”
Shaking his head, he whisked the offending blossoms into the sacristy and returned with fresh ones. As he straightened the stems in their vases, I smiled, thinking of how the showy blooms differed from the sparse displays found in ikebana, the ancient Japanese art of flower arrangement.
In its simplest form, ikebana calls for three main points in a design, representing heaven, earth and, between the two, man. The arrangement is a kind of miniature of the cosmos, with the bare spaces as important as those filled by petals, leaves and twigs. And when flowers in an ikebana display die, they’re not instantly removed. Instead, they become part of the design.
Although I don’t think we’ll see ikebana arrangements in my church any time soon, there’s a wisdom to keeping a few dead and wilting petals in our flowerpots. As the ancient antiphon reminds us, media vita in morte sumus — “in the midst of life, we are in death.”
In modern times, those words often sound cynical, especially if we tend to shrug off the tragedies of the day: the faraway natural disaster, the refugees stranded at the border, the anonymous car accident that for us is simply a traffic inconvenience. “That’s just the way it goes,” we say. “We’re all going to die anyway.”
Unless, of course, we find out it’s our turn, or that of a loved one, in which case we’re thunderstruck, enraged, heartbroken.
Yet on this earth, life and death are for us intertwined, something we would do well to recall — not in a macabre sense, of course, but in a way that enables us to see all that we are and have is a gift from God. The very breath we draw is ours not by force of will, but by divine love: “All things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
Though his generosity is boundless, the Lord does not lavish his gifts that we might hoard them for selfish pleasures. Christ warns that the one who “stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God” knows neither the earthly nor the eternal season: “Your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Luke 12:20, 21).
We are, as St. Peter reminds us, pilgrims who have been bought with a price: “Conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct … not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:17-19).
Adopting a media vita mindset can radically correct our perspective in matters great and small. We’re less inclined to complain if the line at the store is long, or to buy trinkets while millions starve. We’re moved to forgive those who have hurt us, and to share our love with a wounded world. We’re angry for all the right reasons when we see inequality and exclusion, and we work for justice. We’re silent in the presence of a holy God, grateful for the chance to worship him.
In a 2009 interview, ikebana master Eikou Sumura advised readers to “enjoy the falling leaves and petals, and the hole the bug made in the leaf” of an arrangement.
“This is ikebana,” she said.
And, perhaps, a lesson for Lent as well — one that leads us to the second line of the media vita antiphon: quem quaerimus adjutorem nisi te Domine, “What helper do we seek except you, O Lord?”
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