Nature and Mary

Providential Images and Symbols of Our Lady in Nature and the World

– John S. Stokes Jr.

The Gospel tells us that "Only a wicked and faithless age seeks a sign". Such signs are providential means whereby unbelievers may be disposed to receive the gift of faith, as - for many - through the appearances of Our Lady in our times.

The appearance shrines of Our Lady established at Guadalupe, La Salette, Lourdes, Paris, Knock, Fatima and elsewhere, and other Marian shrines, also serve providentially to enhance the life of faith and the love of Mary of those who already believe and who make pilgrimages to them.

Closer to home, devotion to Mary - sustained by prayers of consecration and the Rosary - is frequently quickened in daily life by her images and symbols providentially encountered in nature and artifacts.

As distinct from representations of Mary in religious art, her likenesses and symbols discovered in nature and the artifacts of daily life have a special quickening effect on the imagination because of the unexpectedness or freshness of their encounter.

Those who collect or work with rocks, for example, are from time to time surprised to find that when they crack open an agate rock they may discover an image likeness of Our Lady.

In contemporary experience, many have been startled to encounter or learn of such things as the tower of a newly erected building of a major city lighted by a huge neon M outlining its architectural features and rising over the city. Or a reflection resembling Mary on the side of a glass building. Likewise, there is the discovery of the likeness of Mary's head and veil in the opening aerial view of the London docks of the British TV drama series, "East Enders" (shown on some U.S. PBS channels).

These last examples, typical of many, are cited in that they heighten the sense of God's providence, and quicken prayerful recourse to Mary's omnipresent protecting, nurturing and mediating, in city life, as Our Lady of Divine Providence.

From their spiritual impact, the discovery of such symbols midst the secularity of daily life is to be regarded as more than circumstantial or accidental. If not miraculous or revelatory, they are indeed providential - demonstrating the unity and poetic correspondences between the life of the Spirit on the one hand, and the natural, physical world on the other - both created through the Word of God, through whom all things were made.

In the predominantly rural life of medieval Christendom, such symbols and likenesses of Mary were largely discovered in nature. Indeed, from the generic biblical prophecy of the Virgin Mother of the Messiah as the "Blossoming Rod of Jesse", other flower symbols of Our Lady were discerned in scriptural passages, and then as a "galaxy" in nature.

Mary was seen as "the Rose wherein the Divine Word was made incarnate", of Dante and of the central rose windows of the medieval cathedrals. Then - possibly inspired by the "relics" of Our Lady brought back to Europe by crusaders and pilgrims returning from the Holy Land - numerous flower symbols were discovered of Mary's apparel and household articles, for reflection on the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. As supports for meditation and emulation, other flowers we seen as symbols of her virtues, excellences and mysteries.

Since flowers were universally present in nature, with similar symbolic forms in various localities and countries, they time and again presented a spiritually quickening surprise recognition - both for the traveller, coming round a bend in the road, and for the villager encountering the new blooms of each season. Informed of these flower symbols, we, too, can share in such discoveries today as we encounter the very same blooming flower species in all their freshness while walking past city gardens or window boxes; walking or driving through the countryside; or cultvating them in our own Mary Gardens.

When any actual graces are received through the pious emotions, affections or illuminations excited while beholding such symbolical flowers - especially if they have been sacramentally blest, as in a garden - Mary, Mediatrix of all graces, is indeed present through her mediating action. Frances Crane Lillie, founder of the mother Mary Garden of the present day Mary Garden movement, at St. Joseph's Church, Woods Hole on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was so conscious of this experience in the garden that she entitled the leaflet listing the Flowers of Our Lady in this garden, "Our Lady in Her Garden".

And for those who have received the gift of the sense of Our Lady's presence, this sense is quickened by the beholding of Our Lady's Flowers. Persons with such a sense were likely those who first named flowering plants encountered with some likeness to a human form for Mary, such as "Little Mary" (Zinnia elegans), "Queen Mary" (Aechmea mariae-regina), "Our Lady of-the-Meadow" (Filipendula ulmaria), "Our Lady-by-the Gate" (Saponaria officinalis), and "Our Lady in-the Corn" (Papaver rhoeas).

While the original discoveries of such flower symbols - perpetuated in popular oral traditions, and then recorded by scholars, botanists and folklorists - are almost entirely lost in the mists of time, we do have a contemporary record of one such discovery - that of the Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea), in the New World. This report is instructive in that it preserves the sense of providential wonder associated with the discovery.

It is recorded that in 1610 a Mexican Augustinian friar, Emmanuel e Villegas, made a report, with sketches, of the discovery of the Passion Flower - originally known from the forms of its parts as the "Flower of the Five Wounds" - to a monastic scholar, Jacomo Bosio, in Rome. After verifying the discovery with others, Bosio wrote, "It may be that in his infinite wisdom it pleased (God) to create it thus, shut up and protected, as though to indicate that the wonderful mysteries of the Cross and his passion were to remain hidden from the...people of these countries until the time preordained by his Highest Majesty."

As John Vanderplank writes in Passion Flowers*, from which this quotation is taken, "It was the task of scholars (of that period) to identify and publish the meaning of all manner of living things. They believed that every growing plant or animal was on earth for a specific purpose, for their benefit. The passion flower was no exception, and the story would have been implicitly believed by the common people of that time."

While such flower symbols were in their origins quickeners of faith and love - passed on from parents to children through the generations - they are today often regarded only as interesting or curious lore. It is the hope of Mary's Gardens, now with the help of the Internet, to restore them to their full wonder in our modern culture.

"Look on the flower, think of Mary"

* John Vanderplank, Passion Flowers, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.

Copyright, Mary's Gardens, 1997


The John Stokes and Mary's Garden collection was transferred to the Marian Library in May 2013. In addition to his archives, manuscripts, artwork, and personal library, John S. Stokes also donated his extensive website. It was transferred to the Marian Library in early 2010. This particular entry is archived content original to Stokes' Mary's Gardens website. It is possible that some text, hyperlinks, etc. are outdated.

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