The cathedral in St. Louis is ready for its annual Flower Festival; all day yesterday, buckets of blooms were carried in the front doors to be arranged in most of its nooks and crannies. It is a beautiful cathedral, cleaner and brighter than many of its elder relatives throughout the world, and the flowers will show well there.
It's just as well, because the morning has begun with a steady soaking rain. Looks like the Flower Festival will have to be inside.
Henry Shaw was eighteen when he came to St. Louis from England in the early years of the 19th century. He did well here, well enough to retire a rich man by the time he was forty, and to endow the city with its famous botanical garden before he died. A hundred years later, the garden is one of the loveliest of its kind.
Another thing Henry Shaw endowed was an annual sermon, to be preached in the cathedral, a sermon about flowers, about "the goodness of God as shown in the growth of flowers, fruits and other products of the vegetable kingdom," as he put it. He thought the faithful would benefit from hearing about flowers once a year.
This year, I will preach the sermon for the Flower Festival that has grown up around Henry Shaw's donation. This makes sense -- I write about our garden a lot, at all seasons of the year, but especially at this one. And my virtual community is known as The Geranium Farm, making us all farmers. My right arm is a map of scars from my efforts at pruning the forsythia, and I am still limping from having tripped over a root in the garden two weeks ago. A quick call home this morning was mostly about the garden, about how the eighteen bags of forsythia clippings were graciously carted off by the town yesterday, about how we need to buy some more bags for more of them, about what arrangements we should make for the trumpet vine this year, since it broke its old trellis in two during a high wind last season, about some additional wire supports for the peonies.
So what do they tell us about God, the flowers that are everywhere here in St. Louis, blooming about a month ahead of the ones in my garden in New Jersey? What do we know because of their beauty that we would not know any other way? Indifferent to our comings and goings, uninterested in our drama, eagerly opening their throats to insects and birds and ignoring us, they attract us all. We seek their sweet smell, cut them and bring them into the house so we can have their beauty close to us even when we are inside. We plant their seeds outside before it is time, and watch for weeks, longing for their first tiny leaves to breach the soil. We make up things about them: the dogwood is a sign of the cross, the jack-in-the-pulpit is like a preacher, the hollyhock is like a lady's frilly skirt, the pansy has a human face.
We love them, fantasize about them, care for them, even dream of them. But they do not dream of us. The main thing we learn from their beauty is that we are not at the center of creation. It is not all about us. The flowers were here before we came, and they will come, again and again, long after we have disappeared. Their short cycle of living and dying has nothing to do with us. Life is fragile. It can be snapped off its stem at any time, And so it must be renewed, again and again.
Your life, my life: they are short. We do not make much a dent in the world, you and I. Not many will remember us. Glory in our brief beauty, and place your hope in the renewal of what will come after us. We will not live to see it. But we know it is coming, and it will be beautiful for those who live in that day, just as it has been for us.
The cathedral is lively and welcoming and beautiful. Take a look.