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?

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The word “rosary” comes originally from the Latin rosarium: rose garden. In the fifteen century, when rosaries came into vogue in Europe, the beads were often perfumed with the scent of roses. Sometimes the beads themselves were made of tightly packed rose petals.

Prayer aids like the rosary—either made of beads or, even more simply, knots of cord or string—exist in all the word’s religions. Such items date back to the Stone Age and are among the first technical devices invented. Wherever they appear, these objects always have the same essential function: to put the user in touch with the sacred. In the case of the rosary: an Eden thick with roses.

Roses have been celebrated for their fragrance almost as much as for their looks, of course, but it remains what happens to us when we see a rose—the door that opens in us when we do—that is the ultimate source of its magic. There is something in the lushness of all those petals that suggests infinity, and endless interiority that encloses the entire world within itself. Staring into the petals of a rose we lose ourselves. But, mysteriously, enough, we also find ourselves.

That’s no doubt why, at the conclusion of “The Divine Comedy,” when Dante at last achieves a direct vision of the divine, what he sees is a celestial rose aswirl with angels. It’s also why—closer to our own time—T.S. Eliot began his celebrated long poem “Four Quartets” with an evocation of a rose garden glimpsed in childhood. Eliot, echoing Dante, ended that same poem with a vision of the reunion of the human and divine worlds in which “the fire and the rose are one.”

To look into the rose is to behold a bottomless depth, but it is also to be reminded—to feel—that each of us carries something of this endless depth within ourselves as well. The deepest mystery of the rose is that what we behold at the heart of that mystic swirl of petals is not just heaven, but a hint of our own truest nature.

Yet another rose-loving poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, composed these lines to be inscribed on his gravestone:

Rose, O pure contradiction! Joy
Of being no one’s sleep
Under so many

Stare into a rose and what do you see? Everything.

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