Heaven Is a Rose

Is a rose really just a rose? Or does the fragrant, blossoming beauty show us the deeper mystery and meaning of ourselves?


Stare into a rose, and what do you see? If the rose happens to be red, odds are you’ll say that you see a symbol of love. If it’s white, you might see a symbol of purity and innocence, or perhaps the heavenly and eternal. A pink one, meanwhile, might evoke springtime, childhood and the beauty of young things that grow old all too quickly. One thing, however, is for sure. When you look at a rose, you’re bound to think of something. The rose is not only (as many have suggested over the centuries) the most beautiful of God’s creations, it’s also the most naturally symbolic. Though the writer Gertrude Stein famously observed that a “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” in fact, people have never been able to look at this queen of flowers without seeing more—much more—than just its beauty. The rose can’t help but stir the imagination, can’t help but point beyond itself.

If one boiled all the things that the rose has evoked in people’s imaginations down to one word, it would have to be this: mystery. The rose is a symbol of all things “mysterious, ultimate, indefinable,” Eithne Wilkins writes in her book “The Rose-Garden Game,” “not only of beauty and love, but of immortality and of silence. "

Sub-rosa—that is, secret—literally means “under the rose.” This flower has always called up a sense of something hidden away, something inviolate, something beyond the reach of the dust and noise and confusion of the ordinary world.

So it is that the maidens of medieval romance were often sequestered away in rose gardens, and so it is that Mary, the ultimate symbol of purity in human form, has for centuries been specifically associated with this flower. (In the Middle Ages one of her more popular epithets was "Rosa Mystica, the mystic rose.” Mary is also sometimes called the Rose Without a Thorn, a name which recalls Saint Ambrose’s theory that the rose was the only flower to be found in Eden, and only armed itself with thorns after Adam and Eve brought about the Fall out of paradise.

In the Bible, the word “rose” usually refers to other flowers, like the oleander and the narcissus. Though no roses at all appear in Genesis’ description of Eden, by the Middle Ages the rose was widely thought of as the quintessential flower of paradise.

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