Dante, Divine Comedy: Paradise; Canto 31, The Mystic Rose
In this Canto, Dante illustrates the Catholic idea of the Mystic Rose, one of the insignia of the Virgin Mary and a symbol used for Catholic decoration and meditation. I think of it as the Catholic version of the thousand petalled lotus. The flower represents divine perfection and beauty before the intervention of humanity.
Nature unfolds in poetic perfection. I think one of the ideas Dante is putting forward here is the belief that everything was and is perfect before people begin imposing their will on it. That goes for our own lives too — if you give yourself over to your path, stop resisting who you are or, in Catholic terms, allow God to take control of your life, things tend to turn out pretty well.
Of course, this is an idea that is open to debate.
I was thinking just recently that my life is much better since I gave myself up to the idea of my own path and stopped trying to control everything. However, a dream I had just last night reminded me that wherever we make the decision to accept what is happening in our life and go with that flow — that is where we settle.
If I had, for example, taken the opportunity to buy the house where I lived on Elm Street, very happily for several years in Ottawa, I would have had an asset worth double the cost of it eight years ago. I would have been financially secure but I would never have visited Texas and there is no doubt at all in my mind that I would not be married right now, would not have the life I have, would never have met my beloved husband.
There were other opportunities to settle into a path of happiness that seemed almost right for me in the time and place they were offered but they were not quite right for me and something inside told me to decline the offer of those paths and continue on my own.
Where I am now is exactly where I was always meant to be. That is always true.
So for me, the Mystic Rose is a moment of perfect balance right where you are.
St. Bernard also appears in this Canto for Dante, he was a poet and renowned for his devotion to Mary, whom I see as the female principle of the divine as worshipped by the early Catholics.
For me, the rose is the Goddess, the truth, the path as it is, perfect as it is, and another divine mystery.
The Mystic Rose
On a red-painted front porch, attached to an old, white clapboard house, I sat and wrote. Beside me was a butterfly bush. It was late summer and many of the blooms were brown but amid the leaves and messy blooms, some spent, some still white and fragrant, swallowtails, monarchs, little butterflies with brown and blue wings and black ones with colored borders, all fluttered, settled, drank and flew up, toward the light.
On an August day, in such a place, there is no higher paradise.
The people of Mystic seem to know it. In the town there is an art festival, painters show their work in tents along main street. The suspension bridge lifts its deck to let the boaters through once every hour and everyone asks if Mystic pizza is as good as the movie made it out to be. (Best not to try it so you’ll never know but also do not listen to those who have tried.)
Mystic Pizza is the town’s own tree of knowledge. Those who try it are trapped forever in a world where the unknown is known and they have the weight of their awareness. They tell you it is not as good, they share their experience as we all do but you’ll never believe them if you do not try it for yourself.
Don’t try it.
Some things should be mysteries, left to hover in plain sight, tantalizing with promises unknown and it is better that way.
In the shops they sell glasses with mermaids and seahorses painted on them.
They have lobster suppers at the church hall. There is a psychic, just one for the whole town. Her office is above the main street in town and the steps are painted “Mystic Psychic” in black letters on white.
People walk their dogs and ride their bikes and talk about the weather and everything is exactly as it should be.
In the center of town there is a wild rose. It blooms pink in the summer and what people don’t know is that it is a mystic rose. Clip just one bloom and your car will hold the fragrance for a year.
Eat one fish from the sea nearby and you will never be hungry again. Buy a necklace in the little silver shop, and you will be forever adorned.
We all become what we are called, when we are called to it and there is nothing mysterious about that.
The very root of this story for me began in a garden with roses.
In 1993 I was in therapy after the death of one of my young students at a co-op preschool. He died of appendicitis, there was nothing anyone could do about it at my level but he went home one afternoon and died that night.
I found it all but impossible to live with.
I went into therapy and within weeks, left the field of Early Childhood Education forever. At the time I was living with my boyfriend in my mother’s townhouse. We were renovating the place so she could sell it and buy a larger, revenue property. However, I was also interested in making a home and so I took to gardening.
The garden was nothing but neglected shrubs, rhododendrons and weeds when I took it on but gradually I added vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. It bloomed and became lovely. People regularly stopped to compliment me on the garden as they passed.
My roses were a point of pride for me. They bloomed beautifully, abundantly and constantly and they were a source of comfort too for at the time I was often at odds with my family. My therapist had me sorting out the wounds of my own childhood and I was shocked and upset at all the damage that had been done to me by those who were supposed to love and protect me.
My family hated my therapist and blamed her for a lot of their problems in dealing with me. They were, in one sense, correct since I did use her help to wake up and take my life back.
Within a year of starting therapy I knew I had to go to university. I understood a great deal about myself and those roses were an anchor point.
When things got rocky, I would go out to my garden with a cup of coffee in my hand, look at my roses and think to myself; “they can say I’m wrong about whatever they want, they can say I have failed at everything but I’m right about this. I can do this. This is something I have done alone and this is exceptionally good.”
That gave me the confidence to watch programs like The Power of Myth, seek out the wisdom of teachers like Joseph Campbell and dare to believe those ideas could be applied in my own life.
In 1995 I began my undergraduate course of study at Carleton University. I was on the Dean’s list that year and each subsequent year. I won awards, scholarships and was able to support myself on my writing and teaching.
My roses bloomed and so did I.
And a postscript; ten years after first writing this; in 2017, my husband came home from work early. He was feeling sick to his stomach, so much so that he had pulled the car over and vomited on his way home. He went to bed early, drank a little tea, had a fever. He thought he would be okay if he could just poop, but he couldn’t.
Something in my memory from the death of Derek, my student all those years ago, began to raise an alarm. I put Steven, my husband, in the car and drove to the emergency room. His appendix had ruptured. Without me, Steven would have died in his bed. Without Derek, I may have let it happen.
Nothing in life is wasted. As long as you are present, and a little bit brave, every single thing you experience will become a gift. I believe that.