The scent of finding life, wrote George Macdonald, is “to smell the scent of unseen roses. I doubt we understand that very well, caught as we are in the tyranny of the seen rose, the visible, the healthy, the pretty.
We suffer from a very shallow and destructive concept of beauty and worth: We do not really appreciate the beauty of the rose, which we do see because we fail to grasp the scent of the ones that support it. But this is metaphorical and obscure. Let me explain:
Our world revolves around those who are strong, attractive and active. We see beauty and worth in the pretty, the un-sick, the young and the talented. They are the roses whose attention, affection, and autographs we court. It is they we would put on our mantel. Conversely, we find the sick, the handicapped, the aged, the unattractive, the wounded and the non-achievers a nuisance.
We feed them, tolerate them, and perhaps even, through some residual mixture of insight, guilt, and fairness, give them some of our attention and affection. But they are not the roses! There is little place for them on our mantels, nor in our vision of what is important. The perversity of that sends its poison out, both ways, depriving the weak of a sense of worth and depriving the strong of depth, insight and genuine understanding of life and beauty. In our world, sickness and agedness, non-attractiveness and non-utility of all kinds, are seen, both by those afflicted with them and those observing, as a useless burden, sheer wastage in the system. A sick person, an old person, a handicapped person is made to feel that he or she is a misfortune and that his or her condition makes no sense and helps no one. Thus, surrounded by youth, health, vigor, attractiveness and usefulness, such a person is made to feel small, insignificant, a cripple, a burden and, in the end, is made to feel guilty as well.
Save for being surrounded by extraordinary friends or gifted with extraordinary grace, such a person cannot help but have a horrible self-image: a faded flower among the attractive, unimportant to the mainstream of life. But that is far from being true! Only a society which has all but lost its capacity to see depth can render so shallow and wrong a judgment – and live with itself after imposing it upon its sick and weak members! Real insight, St. Paul tells us, is seeing “face to face,” beyond the “glass, darkly.” The enigma, he calls it. We are in exile, partially distanced from each other, God and the truth. Behind that enigma, we do not see things as they really are. The type of knowledge that ends our exile, by resolving the enigma, sees not just the visible roses, but it scents the unseen ones as well. It scents that humanity is not a bunch of flowers, artificially set together in the interests of the aesthete’s palate, with all the unpretty and faded ones weeded out to keep the bouquet lovely. Rather it sees humanity as it really is, a great and aged tree whose flowers are not artificially chosen but are parts of one great whole, organically dependent one upon the other, with the pretty and the unpretty, the healthy and the sick, all part of one body.
In a bouquet of flowers, because one flower is not dependent upon another, all the unattractive, faded and sickly blooms are carefully eliminated. In a tree, as in life, this is not possible. All is woven together in a body, that body shows its many struggles to come to life and to grow. The ravages of time, sickness, and outside elements have made for broken branches, bruised blossoms, gnarled surfaces, and shriveled and faded parts. But they are all necessary. There can be no beautiful blossoms and no fruit without the bruised and faded, the gnarled and the aged. The weak, sick, aged, and unpretty are as necessary to life as are the pretty and healthy. They reflect the struggle to come to life and to grow. Teilhard de Chardin, in an insight purged under a desert sun, explains it as follows:
“The world is an immense groping, an immense search… it can only progress at the cost of many failures and many casualties. The sufferers, whatever the nature of their suffering, are the reflection of this austere but noble condition.
They are not useless and diminished elements. They are merely those who pay the price of universal progress and triumph…
It is exactly those who bear in their enfeebled bodies the weight of the moving world who find themselves, by the just dispensation of providence, the most active factors in that very progress which seems to sacrifice and shatter them.” (Le Traite d’union)
“When you give a lunch or dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors,” Jesus tell us. “No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”
That’s divine insight! In the sickness and fadedness, in the smell of need, age, wound and uncleanliness, can be grasped the scent of the unseen roses!