The Prayer of the Heliotrope
Nancy V. Gedney, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, a little flower watched the sun as it arced across the sky each day. No matter where the sun went, the flower turned its face toward the sun. In fact, not just one flower followed the sun, all the little flowers did. That’s how they got their name: heliotrope – the one who follows (trope) the sun (helios). They were so in love with the sun that they never missed a day turning toward it, even if the clouds blocked their view. The sun was their great leader and they were its procession of followers. Speaking about the heliotrope, a wise man once said, “If we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as is within the power of a plant to sing.” The wise man called this hymn a prayer.
This movement of the little heliotrope is a prayer. The flower is attracted to the sun, and so moves to face it, but the sun is also very much affected by the little flower’s following it. There’s something both visible and invisible going on here. The flower and the sun are visible; the sun’s pull on the flower and the flower’s effect on the sun is the invisible; and the bridge between the two is the movement (the tropism). A Swiss philosopher, Henry Corbin, called these elements a “community,” and he named their relationship a sympathy. In other words, this attraction happens between the two not only at the same time but each answers the others pull in its own, unique way (the flower by turning, the sun by pulling on the flower). So, we have relationship (a sympathy) that is both reciprocal and simultaneous. Both sides, the physical and the heavenly, perceive and respond to this sympathy.
To go a little further with this idea, Corbin says that because the two are joined in community by the movement, this tropism in the plant is both action and passion. The action is the sun marching across the sky and the flower’s moving; the passion is the flower desiring to move toward the sun and the pull of the sun to draw the flower toward it. The tropism is the prayer that expresses the flower’s and the sun’s passion. Corbin says, “. . .this prayer is the passion (pathos) of their sympathy, i.e. their reciprocal and simultaneous attraction and action.
This action can be seen by anyone with eyes. However, not everyone perceives the prayer that the flower offers up. And not everyone recognizes the relationship of sympathy between the flower and the sun. But, for the one who does see the flower bowing to the sun and thus perceives the flower’s passion for the sun, that one experiences a flash of recognition and knows immediately that the sun also has passion for the flower. In this way one is then drawn into the sympathy, and becomes a participant in the passion, rather than simply an observer. This happening is a theophany – a momentary flash or vision of the Divine.
So the outer visible object (the flower) becomes the conduit of the Divine Light (the invisible) for the observer who is open to the sympathy. The invisible becomes visible if only for a tiny moment.
One night I lay in bed wondering about the “Heliotrope”. I asked myself why I wanted to write about this. Why is it so important to me? I actually got an answer.
The heliotrope and the sun in their simultaneous and reciprocal pull and response, point us to a simultaneous and reciprocal experience that can happen in each of us – over and over again. We, who feel pulled by the Light that arises in us, experience flashes or insights or chills whenever we encounter beauty in music or poetry or a child’s eye. This is the arising of our own passion, our own pathos. The pull of this passion is so powerful in us that it is irresistible – we must turn toward it over and over again –at least that’s how it is for me.
The extraordinary aha! for me in thinking about the heliotrope is that That to Which I am pulled, to Which I respond, is just as delighted in me as I am in It. In fact – aha of ahas! – (and this is the intellectual fact that I can’t yet live by momently), I am It and It is I. One is outwardly visible, and One is inwardly invisible, but the bridge between the inner and the outer, and the subsequent unveiling that occurs as a result of recognizing this relationship, is an action, a movement, a turning toward That which is magnetically pulling. But the passion of One for the One is equally strong, reciprocal and totally irresistible. I cannot not move, I cannot not pray, and as Such, in both the seen and the unseen, I see my Self – FLASH CRACK BOOM! This is theophany — a vision, a flashing of the Divine. And my recognizing the sympathy, being open to the love affair between the heliotrope and the sun, or any other “community” for that matter, results in theophany—well, that is, for anyone who has eyes to see.