Consider the Agave of the Desert

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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 wondrous agave, post-bloom, mid-death

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 at that moment there would not be the least indication that this unfolding was also its downfall; it sprang forth in such rich, beautiful fashion, so richly and beautifully did it go forth—for the whole thing was just a moment—it went to its downfall in unconditional obedience.

Costly indeed.

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.

J Lind

Third, and finally, I’m to learn unconditional joy from the lily. The lily has become nothing before God, relinquishing its egoic will; the lily has obeyed and attained its loveliest form, at the expense of its own life. But the lily’s dance isn’t mechanical. The lily obeys with a joy as resilient as its silence. Not despite its mortal fragility but precisely because of it, the lily is able to cast its deep sorrow on the divine and, in doing so, reap with songs of joy. The lily rejoices over creation: this meal, this weather, this song, this friend. The lily continually sheds its false self and reenters the stream of divine being, an eternal present in which there are no worries about tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow. And this present, where time and eternity touch, narrows the gap such that death itself loses its sting. When I am here, death is not; when death is here, I am not. This very day you are in paradise. I am, in Kierkegaard’s mind, to abide in the divine. And the lily is to be my teacher.

Joy in the Desert

I recently wrote about my latest excursion to a desert of sorts. In short, I’ve come to believe that my art-making can be more distracting than redemptive, preventing me from actually sitting with the absurd, the impossibility of the promise. And in my last post, I speculated on the ephemeral nature of our private Promised Lands, on how the day that you’ve been waiting for, your long-awaited bloom, might just cut you down. The question that’s surfaced from all my ruminating is this: how do I find joy in this desert? How do I gaze into the abyss without succumbing to paralysis, without it gazing too menacingly back into me?

“In the lily’s place,” writes Kierkegaard, “a human being, or we human beings, would certainly despair at the thought that coming into existence and downfall were one, and then in despair we would hinder ourselves in becoming what we could have become, even if only for a moment.” Sitting with the absurd, with the impossibility of the amazing horizons promised to me through my funny strand of this perpetually convalescent religion, is paralyzing. But an evolving faith, like all evolutionary arcs, doesn’t stop at death but starts there; faith pushes off of death, partnering with the immovable mover for leverage and even propulsion. To never gaze into the abyss is to will my own blindness, at my own peril. It can enable a naivety that parades as faith. But when I finally do heed the call and undertake my desert pilgrimage, I face a new danger: my anxiety in the face of the desolation can weigh me down and keep me there, precluding me from my loveliest potential, comically brief and worldly insignificant though that potential might be.

And so, here in the desert, the agave is to be my teacher. The agave fully abides in the desert, even while, to us southwestern Leif Eriksons, it just looks stuck. The agave actually abides for twenty years in preparation for its highest task. And its bloom is spectacular, and lethal. And the agave doesn’t stumble in the face of death, even its own death, but persists in unconditional silence, obedience, and joy in its flowering, towering ascension. The agave rejoices over its bloom along with the rest of creation, just as my mom rejoices over a sweet spoonful of its syrup in her coffee each morning. This very day the agave is in paradise—in the desert, in its own dying.

The agave answers my questions without words, and words probably wouldn’t help me anyway. Writing songs and blogs isn’t evidence of learning; learning is about emulation and implementation. And though I’m an amateur, there seem to be new lessons every day. So for now, or at least for right now, I’m OK with not arriving. The Land of Canaan can wait. There’s so much to learn here in the desert.

You can listen to J’s new song, “Lean Into It,” here. And of course, J wishes you all the best in your own desert pilgrimage. You’re obviously alone, and you’re also not.


1 Comment

  1. Angela McNally

    @avegamcnally

    Greetings from Bisbee, fellow Sonoran desert dweller!
    Thank you for this meditation on the agave. Matthew 6 has been one of my long-favorites, too, and I appreciate the way that you’ve linked it to the life (yes, life!) that is here in the desert. The sequence of unconditionals (silence, obedience, and joy) that you’ve identified resonates completely with my own lived experience of desert wanderings (and actual, desert living) and the spiritual life, that can be hard to express to others who have not had the physical experience of a desert time (although pandemic living seems to have bridged that experience gap in some respects).  The danger and the joy of the desert. Thanks for naming it. Peace.

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