On my expansive old porch stands a large, ungainly, potted plant. It is a night-blooming cereus (NBC). It is an exotic, meant to be vining up inside a tree in the tropics. I keep it compact—or I wouldn’t be able to keep it. I have had it for decades since I was given a typically indestructible cutting from a plant then decades old. (I carried it home, a trip of weeks, squashed in my suitcase.)
I think that this plant is wonderfully ugly! (Partly due to its containment, I realize.) In no orderly pattern it produces skyward stalks, which transition into large, succulent flatnesses which might be leaves. These have nodes along their edges, out of which might come another stalk, another leaf, or…
…a tiny reddish sputnik of a bud.
That little alien swells slowly, retaining its shade of an angry welt on your skin. It enlarges eventually to the size of your hand.
There comes a summer evening when you realize that the massive bud is bending to point upward, and its sepals are starting to stand out from it. (It reminds me a bit of a lion fish!) The time has come. Grab your lawn chair and your flashlight and your camera. Grab your unsuspecting neighbors, if they’ll let you. This will be an event. Snap a pic every five minutes or so. You can’t help it; you can Google any number of videos people have made! But you can’t capture the magic of the event. By morning, I note, the show will be over.
Behold! A massive white blossom, the most stunning you have ever seen, opens out to you, like a generous hand, graciously uncloaking its majestic interior of ranks of stamens and a crowning pistil, perfuming the warm summer night!
It’s as if the blossom looks you in the eye and says beguilingly, “Here I am!”
That blossom opens and somehow invites you in. It’s as if it says, “Welcome to my home.”
To which the only appropriate response is, “Whoa-a-a-h . . .” “Oh-h-h-h!” “Ah-h-h-h!”
You now are no longer able to see that plant in the same way. In your rapturous encounter you gaze at it with a kind of surprised recognition. “So! It is You!” we might find ourselves saying.
And then and there, you give your heart to an ugly plant, to love and cherish as long as you both shall live. For these decades, I have dragged my “NBC” indoors in the fall, and back out in the spring. I have pruned it with apology, adjusted its lighting and feeding, and attended to it continually in hope of other moments of bud glory. I have enthusiastically bestowed cuttings on unsuspecting friends. In all the places I have lived, I have invited neighbors over for the show. (The neighbors I invited most recently actually came back over and sat on my porch again later in the dead of the night, just to watch!)
This event of epiphany and encounter typifies human persons’ involvement with the real.
Real? What real? might be your first question. By “real,” I mean the things before you, everything beyond you with which it is your privilege to be involved. In my NBC blossoming I am describing that magical place of meeting where you and the real face and touch and encounter one another.
I am here to say that this is the arena of the philosophical. You might have thought that philosophy concerns the abstract and universal and inscrutable. I dissent from this. Philosophy concerns you and your involvement with the real, in attuning, understanding and action, at its nearest, felt, and most concrete. Great philosophizing pours forth from the night blooming cereus! Great philosophizing permeates our day to day lives. We may allow it to shape and heal us philosophically.
The blossoming of the real shouldn’t be a rare or occasional thing; it typifies—or ought to typify—every touch and seeing. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, Rev. John Ames is an elderly, terminally ill, pastor writing at length to his very young son. Ames’ final exhortation: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”
Beauty is the real’s hospitable welcome. We respond in rapture. It attunes us to do so.Esther Lightcap Meek
But sadly, we often don’t notice. We objectify, pragmatize, quantify, commodify the real. Or we suspect it, distrust it, disavow it. We “depersonify” it. Or, in a sense even more tragic, we degrade it by according it only spiritual utility: it merely marks some secret meaning, some divinity, hidden behind or within it.
We put ourselves in the first person: “I.” We put the real in the third person: “it.” We blind ourselves to its second person in epiphany. The real shows up. It addresses us: “you.” We discount our own “second personhood,” blind to the invited encounter. But it is in the second person that we are meant to be involved with the real.
Philosopher D. C. Schindler writes that human persons are “ordered to” communion with the real D. C. Schindler writes—meaning, that is our reason for existence! Human persons are made for communion with the real. We are meant to be lovers of the real. Knowledge, according to Schindler (and me) is intimate contact with reality.
Epiphany. The real graciously shows itself. The real manifests in self-revelation. The blossom says, “Here I am!”
Encounter. The real addresses you. It has found you and addresses you. To which you respond: “So! It is You!”
Philosopher theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that things—the everyday things of the real—self-show (beauty), self-give (goodness), and self-say (truth). There is no such thing as a passive object. All this heightens the gravitas of things; it heightens the gravitas of you.
Encounter begins with epiphany—not mine, but that of the real. The real graciously self-shows, opening our eyes. Beauty just is this epiphanic appearing initiated by the real. Beauty is the beguiling “Here I am!” of a real thing. Beauty is the real’s hospitable welcome. We respond in rapture. It attunes us to do so.
We respond, following its beckoning, following where it leads. It is giving itself; we give ourselves in response. We long and love to know the real—that is, come to commune with it. Our fidelity to it invites its further disclosure and our deepening understanding. This real opens out into joyously bottomless depths and vistas.
“Things can fully manifest themselves in their being only to an intellect that is naturally ordered to being [the real],” Schindler says. Ferdinand Ulrich writes: “What everything in the cosmos seeks, we might say, is an ever deeper Yes to be spoken to it, an affirmation of its being.” The real is asking for our yes.
Does this sound fanciful? Gullible? Marginal? This too would be a philosophical assessment. I would have you trim your philosophical sails and reset your course.
My 2023 book, Doorway to Artistry, is a hospitable welcome of a book. In it I enact the face to face, second person, epiphany and invited encounter that is our everyday brush with the real. Hospitable welcome is tellingly not something you are satisfied only to hear a report about; you want to have been among those attending the party!
Within this encounter, we trace our journey of involvement with the real, from threshold and hearth, through study, garden, workshop and veranda, to feast. This is the unfolding of any discovery we make. It is the unfolding of every relationship. It is also the unfolding of every creative act.
The act of artistry is exceptionally attuned to the epiphanic encounter with the real; to be authentic, artistry cannot keep it at bay. Artistry is deeply philosophical: it gets at the “Here I am!” of our epiphanic encounter with the real.
You as a human person are philosophical; you also are already artful: you already put things together creatively to produce new or better things. In artistry you attend to the things before you: your materials and skills and situation and guiding maxims. You attend from them in a manner which invites their farther depths of reality. You do this out of a posture of, I will say in the book: noble courtesy.
Our noble courtesy reciprocates the welcome which the real has proffered. Again, Schindler: “A sense of beauty demands that we extend courtesy to things. In such a world, things may indeed serve human purposes, but if they do so it is not an abject slavery; rather, they offer themselves for this use in something analogous to a noble freedom in which their own reality preserves its integrity. The service takes the form of a gift gratefully received.” Things call forth from you (from YOU) a reverence, a courtesy, a reciprocated honor, and gratitude, a nobility in your manner toward them.
This approach shifts how we look at and engage with the real. It is a shift necessary to our human personhood. It is necessary to our artistry. It is necessary to the real.
Welcome to my home.
Esther Lightcap Meek is Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Geneva College in Western Pennsylvania. She is also Senior Scholar for The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, a Fujimura Institute Scholar, an Associate Fellow with the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology, and a member of the Michael Polanyi Society. She lives in Steubenville, Ohio.