One of the few native green things we have here in the Sonoran Desert is agave. You might be familiar with its syrup, a sweetener that reaches the shelves of only the hippest, Gen-Zestiest cafes. Well folks, the hype might not be overblown.
It’s a big family, but the agave that I grew up with in Phoenix is sometimes called the “century plant,” after its long life. (Ever keen on luring fellow humans to the desert, we southwestern Leif Eriksons tacked on a good 70 years.) The century plant is strange for at least a few reasons: (1) it’s a green thing in the desert; (2) in miniature form, it parades as a “succulent” that qualifies as a “good gift;” and (3) it blooms only once after dragging its feet for decades. Pretty neat.
But the bloom actually is special. After lying dormant for twenty years, a giant asparagus shoots up out of the plant. This ominous “flower spike” can reach twenty feet in height with petals that might include other-worldly reds, yellow, and purples—rarities in the desert. And how does the wondrous agave cap off this spectacular, long-waited bloom? It dies. That’s right. The agave waits decades to flower, and in its big moment, it decays. Coming into its most beautiful form somehow requires its death.
So now, bear with me: imagine that you are this agave. That is, you are a green thing abiding in a harsh environment that threatens your existence; you are perpetually misunderstood, ignored by the passerby blind to your latent potential; and, finally, you are a being whose highest task is inseparable from your own death.
Wouldn’t that be terrible?
The Lily, My Teacher
The Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard follows this thread in The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (1849), bringing his full religious attention to bear on Christ’s invocation in Matthew 6:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
As a kid, I read this passage as a simple instruction to stop worrying. God will take care of everything, so worrying is a waste of time. But as a young adult, I began taking it less and less seriously until it became more poetic than commanding. Of course, it’d be nice to be like the lily, not having anything to worry about. It’d be nice.
Kierkegaard argues that I was closer my first time around. When Jesus instructs his audience to “consider the lily,” he isn’t invoking nature for mere aesthetics. Rather, Christ is commanding me to treat the lily as my teacher, that is, as a master who has accomplished something that we humans, for all our wonderful skyscrapers and iPhones, have neglected. I’m commanded to take the lily as my teacher.
So what is the lily supposed to teach me? Kierkegaard finds three lessons.
First, I’m to learn unconditional silence. No, he’s not referring to centering prayer, although that might help. This silence is a posture of nothingness before the divine. That is, in truly appreciating my complete otherness from the omni-[insert virtue] god, I’m commanded to shed my false, egoic self and become nothing. This task alone is more than enough for a lifetime (no “post-Christians” for Kierkegaard), and yet it’s a posture that the rest of creation seems to maintain with ease. The roaring ocean is silent; the lily is silent. It’s just us “higher” primates who insist on being something before the divine and, in doing so, fail to become nothing.
Second, and only once silent, I’m to learn unconditional obedience. Having become nothing, I can now begin to exist in accordance with the divine will. And this obedience is to be unswerving and unyielding, irrespective of the cost. “Even if,” writes Kierkegaard,
…the situation that the lily encounters at precisely the moment it is to spring forth is as unfortunate as possible, is so unfavorable that as far as it can judge in advance with something close to certainty, the lily can predict that it will be snapped off at that very instant, so that its coming into existence becomes its downfall—indeed, so that it seems as if it only came into existence and became lovely in order to perish: the obedient lily submits to this obediently; it knows that such is God’s will, and it springs forth. If you saw it a