The Flower Communion is an annual service in which we each bring a flower, create an altar full of bouquets, and end by each taking away a flower that another person brought. Founded in 1923 by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Capek, this ritual was spread all over the United States through the leadership of his wife Maja, and is celebrated in most Unitarian Universalist congregations to this day.
Last year, we sent in dozens of photos and enjoyed a video showing them each in turn. This year, we will share our flowers live! If you can, have a flower ready to hold up to your video camera (cut flower . . . resident of your garden . . . painting . . . plant . . . anything that blooms!). We would love to see your smiling face as well if you’re comfortable with that.
Contemplating the beauty that each of us brings, we will renew our connection to each other and the blossoming earth.
Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Special music: Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, piano
Reading: How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This, Hanif Abdurraqib
Homily: More Closely, Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Wise people have been asked from time immemorial for brief words of advice that will work in any circumstance. According to legend, one person advised the dictum, “This too shall pass.” According to T. H. White, Merlin told the young King Arthur, “Learn something.” Something I absorbed, though I couldn’t say from whom exactly, was: “More closely.” Look, or listen, or move in, more closely. It’s a remedy for all sorts of troubles, and a fountain of wonder and beauty.
Stuck in a waiting room, or a traffic jam? Observing more closely may make the time as rewarding as two hours spent watching a great movie. Don’t stop watching what the car in front of you does—safety first—but maybe trace the lines of its headlights and bumper and see how they reflect the light. How you can tell just from looking at them what the sky is like right now, bright or overcast, raining or threatening rain, dusk or late afternoon.
The most featureless painted wall has texture and variation. Its history is written there, for us to read if we read closely. Here, the painter got impatient and didn’t clean the brush of extra paint, so there’s a glob, a thickening that we can even feel if we run our fingers across it. There, a tiny bit of the previous color peeks through—the previous owners had very different taste in wall decoration, putting down what looks like avocado where today’s owners put eggshell. Suddenly we’re looking, not just at paint, but at people: what they consider beautiful, what kind of day they had as they spread paint across a wall. We can begin to wonder: were they bored? Were they happy? Did this work sustain them? Where are they now?
If we are numb or overwhelmed, looking more closely can take us into the small wonders of existence, which have the power to relight our imaginations and our hopes.
If we are in grief or depression and our own insides are hard to bear, whatever is right before us may offer some consolation or the very least, distraction—if we move in close, very close. The weave of that blanket we’ve pulled over our heads is a universe.
We humans have invented tools for looking more closely. A telescope reveals a patch of blank darkness in the sky to be a field of blossoming stars. And like the flowers in a meadow, no two of them are quite alike. They look alike at first, maybe, but the more closely we zoom in, the more each one of them has its own shape, its own subtleties of color and movement.
Look just once through a microscope, and you will never use the expression “like watching paint dry” to mean boredom again. The drying of paint, seen up close, is a beautiful dance of currents, particles streaming together in harmonious purpose. Wood, seen magnified just ten times, turns out to be a honeycomb of cells stacked upon cells, or ten times more, it is a delicate lace, fibers stitching air into a fabric that can grow a hundred meters high.
If we don’t have a telescope or microscope, no worries. We have eyes and ears and fingertips.
We have memories and imaginations. And so a person who seems to us to be a blank wall, nothing much to see; or a confusing tangle of contradictions; or an angry heap of indistinguishable junk; might reveal something very different if we move in more closely. The scowling woman in line in front of us: what happened in her life the day she was exactly the age of the child she is snapping at right now? We can’t know, of course, but we can wonder, we can imagine. As we wait there with our shopping cart, six feet back, we can create a whole story. If we were a novelist we might begin with what we can observe: whether she moves with ease or with discomfort, what kind of mood shows in her stance, whether she bites her nails or paints them or has someone else paint them, what she’s buying and what she likes to eat for breakfast . . . There’s so much to notice that we can barely begin before she pays the cashier and hurries out of our sight.
There’s so much to notice that we can barely begin before we’re out of time. But let’s begin, anyway.
Today, even though we are miles, even hundreds of miles, apart from one another, we can look closely at the flowers each of us will soon hold up to our camera lenses. Just observing more closely for the five minutes or so of Veronika’s playing is enough to bring us into close contact with astonishment. Like the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, who wrote, “I have been called by what I look like / more than I have been called by what I actually am,” these flowers offer us much more than we imagine at first glance. We have the time to go beyond that first glance, beyond our names and labels and expectations, to receive the gift of our own observing.
So if you see a flower that seems to have nothing much of interest to offer, may I suggest that you pause there. Maybe it is a kind you don’t like, or a kind with which you are very familiar. You’ve seen it before, you’ve seen it all. That’s a cue to look more closely. When you have seen something you have never noticed before, maybe say a silent thank you.
This is our communion: our coming close together, to receive each other’s gifts as we offer ours. To take in the world around us and enter into it. Maybe you will find a certain flower whose image you will take with you when our service ends, or maybe many will speak to you. Let’s move in closely enough to discover what they have to say.
After our Flower Communion–several minutes of close contemplation of one another’s flowers–we made the following word cloud about the experience.