Personal Pleasures no 3: Sunflowers

I like all flowers, but there is something particularly wonderful about the sunflower. I love to see fields of them in the South of France, rows and rows of yellow faces all lined up with soldiers on parade. I love the way when the sun is the opposite side of the field to you they all turn their backs on you, as if you had said something to offend them.

This year we succeeded in growing a sunflower in our garden. I planted about a dozen seeds from a packet of mixed wild flowers. Three came up, pushing their folded cotylodons through the cold March soil, and then slowly unfolding, getting two proper leaves and starting their long climb upwards. One although healthy has turned out somewhat stunted (or perhaps a different variety) and has only reached 4 feet high, but the two others soared upwards until, when they were about five feet tall, we had an unusually windy day and I found that one I had staked with a 3 foot pole was broken over just below the top of the stake. I was heartbroken, and I added a second bamboo pole to my one remaining successful plant to prevent a repetition of the disaster. Even so things looked uncertain for that when I found it leaning sideways after another gale, but fortunately it was bent but not broken. I put in an even higher and stronger stake – six feet of metal this time – and watched anxiety for signs of wilting. Fortunately none appeared and my survivor continued upwards to over eight feet at which point over a fortnight we watched with fascination as the bud appeared and started to follow the sun round the sky.

It is now in its full glory, the yellow petals flaming out from the dark circle of the centre like the golden rays of a baroque monstrance drawing the eye to the white circle of God with us. And as those rays draw our eyes to the white circle of the sacred host, so the petals draw the insects into the ring of pollen bearing anthers round the edge, reminding me of Dante’s vision of the hosts of heaven:

In forma dunque di candida rosa
mi si mostrava la milizia santa
che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa;

ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ‘nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,

sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,

nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ‘l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
Displayed itself to me the saintly host,
Whom Christ in his own blood had made his bride,

But the other host, that flying sees and sings
The glory of Him who doth enamored it,
And the goodness that created it so noble,

Even as a swarm of bees, that sinks in flowers
One moment, and the next returns again
To where its labor is to sweetness turned,

Sank into the great flower, that is adorned
with leaves so many, and thence reascended
to where its love abideth evermore.

(Longfellow’s translation)

Like Dante’s great flower our sunflower is adorned with many leave, huge green flat things like serving spoons which collect the light and the rain to nourish the plant and the flower which is its summit and its reason for existing.

Although the flat central disc of that flower is reminiscent of a Sacred Host in a monstrance, in two ways I find it more like our vision of God than that perfect white circle: the ring of pollen bearing dots round the edge is an image of the saints and angels, gathered round God, and the central circle is dark and in shadow for much of the day, like the dark cloud of unknowing which prevents us seeing the glory of God even when hidden in a snow white wafer.

As I sat and drank in its beauty I was reminded of another image I was privileged to see once in my life – the Sun in total eclipse. The golden petals look like the corona, the flames of glowing gas shooting out from the Sun which we can only see during those few minutes when the glory of the Sun is obscured by the round black shadow of the Moon. As the sky darkened and the birds fell silent as the shadow moved over the face of the Sun there was a chill in the air, and when the last crescent of light disappeared and the corona emerged I felt a huge wave of bittersweet emotion wash over me and I wanted to cry.

It is little wonder that in the years before the Roman Empire embraced Christianity people were increasingly drawn to worship the Unconquered Sun, and that we still keep great the feast of that phase of monotheism – although today we call it Christmas, the birthday of that other Unconquered Son.