Welcome to day 8 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
We’re in the midst of a dozen days or so playing with some of the lyrics and elements in the song “China Roses.” It’s packed with interesting plants and allusions, and since I don’t know what was in lyricist Roma Ryan’s head when she concocted this magic, I feel I can construe the lines as I wish (“who can say the way it should be?,” after all).
Yesterday, the topics were cloud in crimson and one love carved in acajou. Today’s topic is the key of heaven.
As I mentioned at the start, taken as a whole, the lyrics span time from dawn through day to evening, night, and moon rise, evoking an exotic Eden, mythic and romantic, scented with heady fragrances, planted with unusual specimens made lush by rain and river, under a swirl of celestial motion. Explicit in the words and implicit in the connotations, histories, and mythologies are repetitions and reverberations of these conjurings, a journey through time in a day, time in an eon, eternity in the cosmos.
Here again are the lyrics:
Who can tell me if we have heaven,
Who can say the way it should be;
Moonlight holly, the Sappho Comet,
Angel’s tears below a tree.
You talk of the break of morning
As you view the new aurora,
Cloud in crimson, the key of heaven,
One love carved in acajou.
One told me of China Roses,
One a thousand nights and one night,
Earth’s last picture, the end of evening:
Hue of indigo and blue.
A new moon leads me to
Woods of dreams and I follow.
A new world waits for me;
My dream, my way.
I know that if I have heaven
There is nothing to desire.
Rain and river, a world of wonder
May be paradise to me.
the key of heaven:
I’ll ramble down a couple of (primrose?) paths — two overtly religious, two not, and one botanical — in this post, considering what “the key of heaven” might signify or evoke.
Because “China Roses” is a song about heaven, the Christian Bible passages in the Gospel of Matthew about the “keys of heaven” come to mind. In 16:19, Jesus says to Peter (Πέτρος, Petros), after telling him he’ll build his church on this rock (πέτρᾳ, petra), “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Similarly (but in the future perfect tense, ἔσται, estai, a confident proclamation of the future) in Matthew 18:18: “Truly I say to you, Whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
In other words, it’s not only “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” as in the Lord’s Prayer, but also the inverse, in Heaven as it is on Earth, and humans (acting as “the church”) have power to make it so.
One way to think about binding and loosing is that humans here on Earth are trapped, have trapped ourselves, in unnecessary bindings from which we can free ourselves as individuals and as a community. Benedictine monk Andrew Marr gives an example in his blog post on this from 2014 at his Imaginary Visions of True Peace website, which seems well-suited to the time of heightened tribalism we’re in now:
“Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed, even encouraged to bind on earth? Why are we slower to see that maybe we are being encouraged to loose on earth? Let’s return to Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive and Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit which is what seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth. We are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us.) If we remain bound to our resentments, we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound with others by forgiveness.”
Rachel A. McGuire’s dissertation, “The Dangerously Divine Gift: A Biblical Theology of Power” (2015, Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto CN), examines the same Matthew passage — “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” — and develops an ethic of hospitality or relationship based on the “responsibility within creation” that it confers on humans, in an awareness that
“inner spiritual formation and daily interpersonal engagement are inextricably linked to social change. In every interchange of our lives, however small, we are managing power. The way that we manage power is determining whether we and others thrive or suffer. Further these small negotiations of power are affecting the systems of power we inhabit. Our choices impact whether we collectively are becoming more insular, xenophobic, and fearful or whether we are becoming more open, joyful in difference, and loving.”
She offers three practices (curiosity, compassion, and incarnation) toward this end.
Curiosity she defines as “a way of being in the world that is predicated upon humility. This is the antidote to our epistemological [head knowledge] bubble,” a way to be open-minded and to learn from “the other.”
The second practice (centered in the heart) is compassion. McGuire quotes St. Isaac the Syrian:
“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for every created thing. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.”
What a challenging practice for our times.
Third is incarnation, body-centered:
“We observe our urge to escape the realities of here and now and to retreat to an imaginary then or over there. We notice ourselves pushing away the pressing demands of physical existence, building our own bubble and contriving false peace. Through this practice, we learn to integrate reality, just as it is, broken and messy, into our spirituality. … We literally feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. … Through our embrace of embodied life, comes a love of beauty. We pause in awe and wonder at the physical world. We discover a love of food. We delight in the warm ripe riches that form in the earth and fall from trees. … [W]e enjoy sensory experiences. We move out of the bubble and become alive in the body. This aliveness makes us conscious of our impacts on others and the world. We can no longer tolerate the brutal way that colossal corporations produce food, energy, clothing, housing and healthcare.”
These practices “invite us into a life of awareness and prayer. They remind us that there is no completion point. Each day we check in. Is my mind open and free? Is my heart connected to the love at the heart of the universe? Is my body awake and engaged?”
Curiosity, compassion, and embodied aliveness seem very in keeping with “China Roses” as a whole, in its attitude of wonder toward the Earth, in its sensual colourful images, in its interest in the exotic and the here-and-now.
Leslie Harpold, one of the best writers I’ve read, whose online postings have all but disappeared from the internet since her death in Dec. 2003 (at 40 years) — her family has abandoned her websites and removed her writing — wrote a post called “Possible Scenarios for Heaven” in 2003 (thank goodness, it’s at the Way Back Machine), which included these lines describing aspects of her desired heaven:
“A record arm that you can pick up and put down in favorite parts of your life to play over, like dropping the needle in the middle of your favorite song back in 1980, when you knew exactly which part of the groove was where the guitar solo to ‘Train in Vain’ ended.”
“Someone brushes your hair every single day and never says, ‘My arms are tired.’”
“Get up around sunrise, because sunrise is always five minutes after you wake up in heaven, and seeing a different and more magnificent one each day, simultaneously thinking ‘Wow, earth was beautiful’ and also ‘This is pretty great too.’ Spend the whole day reunited with pets and being really good at all the stuff you never got around to learning but always wanted to try like snow boarding and making quilts.”
“When people look at you, they see you and they smile from the heart. At night you sleep on the softest pillow ever, and both sides of the pillowcase are cool.
“What is is always good enough.”
The key to heaven: What is is always good enough. The key to heaven on Earth, too? (“I know that if I have heaven/There is nothing to desire”)
Perhaps not that there is nothing to desire in the external world but that my heart and mind are aware that what I have is enough. It’s a bit of a mental and emotional tightrope. When I tidy up in the house, or work to improve something in my surroundings or about myself, I do what I can or want to that day and then think, “It’s better than it was.” I may have a vision of or desire for a cleaner room, and at the same time, it’s good enough … for now. The word “always” in Leslie’s conception may be critical.
Also in Leslie’s heaven: favourite memories, incarnation and touch, curiosity and learning, compassion, feeling loved, comfort, and not having to wake up at ungodly hours to catch the sunrise each day.
More on curiosity and heaven:
In Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), one of the characters — a woman in her 70s who has cancer and is dying — gives a soliloquy on death to a reporter who’s come to interview her for her obituary; here’s part of it:
“But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood. The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts. From one’s own perspective, there is no loss. You see? … What I really fear is time. That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won’t hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past — it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There’s that line of Heraclitus: ‘No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same man.’ That’s quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn’t the end of life, but the end of memories.”
When I read this, my immediate reaction was, No, that’s wrong. Not the part of the past feeling unreal – that’s so for me, too. Not the suggestion that memory maintains this illusion of a permanent self – I think that’s right, too. But what we fear in death, or what I fear, is not the end of memories, which, as she has just said, are often inauthentic and are really about someone else anyway (the self at that time). It’s the end of experience. Of possibility. Of piqued and slaked curiosity. Of what might happen and of what is happening.
My fear is not about the loss of memories and of the past — the past is already gone and memory only grants the illusion of a self, of a number of selves; my fear is the loss of curiosity and the possible future, and the loss of experience in this very present moment. ‘Experience simply halts.’ Yes, that’s the unimaginable grief of death.
Of course, I am also curious about what might happen after death. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope there. It seems likely there could be nothingness, no experience. Or if there is experience and consciousness, could it ever be any better than lying outside in the warm sun, listening to water lapping and gulls voicing, thinking hazy thoughts and making pleasurable plans? Or better than discovering something new, some new pattern, some unexpected collision of ideas, something full of wonder that changes the way you think and feel? If not, then what’s a heaven for?
Finally, botanical. “Key of Heaven,” “key flower,” and “St. Peter’s Keys” are common names in England’s West Country for Primula veris, aka cowslip, a primrose with fragrant yellow flowers:
These nicknames “(reflecting the resemblance of a the cluster of flowers to a bunch of keys) have an interesting history. In the old Norse times the flowers were dedicated to Freya and symbolised the keys to that goddess’s treasure palace. Christianised to ‘Our Lady’s keys’, they eventually came to be associated with that most famous of key-holders, St. Peter. A north European legend tells that they sprung up where Peter, shocked to find that a duplicate had been made, dropped the key of Heaven to earth!!” (source) (More on P. versis)
Els Barrs at Tales of Nature offers a version of the mythic story:
“Peter is one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and after his death he became the keeper of the heaven’s gates. On his belt still rattled the large golden keys which allow entry to all the heavenly vaults. It is his task to welcome the ‘good souls’ into the heavenly paradise and to point the ‘bad souls’ in the direction of hell. On one of the first spring days of the year in question Petrus was feeling slightly dazed by the warm spring sunshine and nodded off to sleep in his comfortable chair in front of the heavenly gates. He was so sleepy that he forgot to click the keys onto his belt, so that they eventually fell out of his hands as he sat there snoring. Several hours later the bunch of keys fell to earth. A little girl who was playing in a field nearby heard the heavy keys drop down in the meadow. The gold glittered and shone yellow in the sun. Because she sensed that these were important keys, she did not dare pick them up. Instead she ran back home to tell her parents about these amazing keys which had simply dropped out of the sky. By the time the parents of the excited girl had reached the meadow, it seemed as if the keys had already disappeared. But on the spot where the girl pointed to now grew a beautiful plant with bright yellow sparkling flowers. A plant they had never seen before. The flowers hung down to the side of the stem, like the keys on a keyring. They realized at once that they were special, which is why they called this newly discovered plant ‘key of heaven.'”
Wikipedia notes that “[s]pecies from the genus Primula along with other ritual plants played a significant role in the pharmacy and mythology of the Celtic druids, likely as an ingredient of magical potions to increase the absorption of other herbal constituents. In the Middle-Ages it was also known as St. Peter’s herb or Petrella and was sought after by Florentine apothecaries.”
Interestingly, the phrase “primrose path” (from Shakespeare, in Hamlet), meaning a reckless and ultimately unrewarding, even disastrous, path of ease or pleasure, is pretty much the opposite of the common Christian idea of the key of heaven, which may involve self-sacrifice, character-building, and/or belief in a stern god.
Primula veris is found growing wild in parts of Canada and in the northern U.S., including western Maine and in a few spots in Vermont and Massachusetts, but it’s not been sighted in New Hampshire, per GoBotany (similarly with P. japonica, P. laurentiana, and P. mistassinica). The only Primula species native to the U.S.. are in the West, mainly in mountainous areas.
Here are some varieties I’ve noticed in east coast gardens.
Enchanted Gardens offers some ideas for primroses to plant in New England, including the “key of heaven” itself, Primula veris, in dappled shade in rich soil (a brilliant yellow cultivar named ‘Cabrillo’ is mentioned); Primula rusbyi (Rusby Primrose, Z3), rose-red to deep purple; Primula seiboldii (Siebold Primrose, Z4), with a colour range that includes white, soft pink, magenta, bluish lavender (a cultivar called ‘Smooch’ is mentioned); Primula japonica (Candelabra Primrose, Z4), with red-purple to white flowers, for moist to wet areas in dappled shade; and Primula vulgaris (English Primrose, Z4), with fragrant pale yellow flowers in the species, and hybrids and cultivars in purples, reds, whites, and yellows. There’s also a photo of a red-flowered cowslip, which is likely the cultivar Primula veris ‘Sunset Shades.’
Tomorrow: a thousand nights and one night
Heaven for Helen
by Mark DotyHelen says heaven, for her, would be complete immersion in physical process, without self-consciousness — to be the respiration of the grass, or ionized agitation just above the break of a wave, traffic in a sunflower’s thousand golden rooms. Images of exchange, and of untrammeled nature. But if we’re to become part of it all, won’t our paradise also involve participation in being, say, diesel fuel, the impatience of trucks on August pavement, weird glow of service areas along the interstate at night? We’ll be shiny pink egg cartons, and the thick treads of burst tires along the highways in Pennsylvania: a hell we’ve made to accompany the given: we will join our tiresome productions, things that want to be useless forever. But that’s me talking. Helen would take the greatest pleasure in being a scrap of paper, if that’s what there were to experience. Perhaps that’s why she’s a painter, finally: to practice disappearing into her scrupulous attention, an exacting rehearsal for the larger world of things it won’t be easy to love. Helen I think will master it, though I may not. She has practiced a long time learning to see. I have devoted myself to affirmation, when I should have kept my eyes on the ground.
Featured image: collection of keys laying on a sidewalk in Chelsea, NYC, Nov. 2010.