The Rose, the Ear, and the Tiger
“Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you—” 1
Much as I love flowers, I never intended to have roses. Roses required too much care, I thought, at least too much for me. I was afraid I’d be their slave in order to keep them healthy and beautiful, as they deserve. But when we were gifted with—not one but two—rose bushes for our fiftieth wedding anniversary, I decided I’d better get serious about their planting and care. It was the friends who lavished them on us that I did not want to disappoint.
Was it the caprices of the weather—if the weather could be said to have a will of its own—or could it also be just a little bit the care I’ve given them, that the roses this year are so remarkable that I can’t find words to describe them? I marvel. And I marvel again. I marvel for the third time—and I haven’t stopped.
So it was that I was contemplating three roses in a vase on our dining table one Sunday lunch.
“How,” I began my sentence to my husband, “could someone look at those layers and folds and ruffles, at the edges of each peachy-coral petal etched with a darker coral, and each petal sprinkled as if by the splatterings of a watercolorist’s paint brush, at the delicate, subdued hues melting into a butter yellow at the center where the stamen and pistils have gathered nectar for bees who then go to their honey-trees and gorge themselves delectably as well as leave some for us—and think this all just happened?”
Well, I didn’t say all that and certainly not that poetically—but what I did say, and continue to ask, makes the mind boggle. And I haven’t even mentioned attar, the essential oil extracted from the petals that is so captivatingly fragrant that we humans make it into costly perfumes—
Which brings me to the ear.
Anyone who has held a baby to her breast has an excellent view of the baby’s ear. Like the rose, the ear has folds and ruffles and a petal. Like the rose, the center of the ear holds mysteries in its depths. It is a marvel—like the rose—of workmanship.
As with my reluctance to having roses of my own, I never would have chosen to have hearing aids. But hearing aids are far superior to not hearing well. So, after some years of wearing them, we moved to Ohio where I needed to find a hearing-aid specialist locally. As I sat down across the desk from a cheerful young technician, I was a bit surprised when she got out a plastic model and proceeded to explain to me the wonders of the human ear. I thought I already knew as much as I needed to know, but she was zealous.
“I want everybody to understand,” she said, “just how amazing the ear is.”
After explaining the intricacies of the cochlea, the tympanic membrane (the drum), the stirrup, the semicircular canals, and much more—and why I now don’t hear well—she told me the story of a friend who was seriously injured in a fall that should have taken his life. As he lay in a coma in the hospital, friends and family continued to talk to him, read and sing to him, trying to urge him back to consciousness. When he finally did pull through, he told everyone that it was their words of encouragement—coming through his ear—that helped him hold on to life. My compassionate hearing specialist choked up as she related his story.
“The ear is a marvel,” she said simply. There was not much more that needed to be said.
Already thankful that I could hear better wearing hearing aids than not, I went home with a renewed awe of the finely-tuned and delicate but precise instruments I wear on the sides of my head: my ears.
Which brings me to the tiger.
We have William Blake to thank for “The Tyger.” I like to think, reading his poem, that as he meditated on the powerful creature with its burning eyes, he may have asked the same question I did: how—
“Tyger tyger burning bright/in the forests of the night:/what immortal hand or eye/dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
—could anyone think this creature just happened? Blake did not think so. Clearly, for Blake, the tiger came from a hand that was even more fearful—and fearless—than the creature itself. Then Blake asks a different question: “Did He smile His work to see? / Did He who made the lamb make thee?” Questions that invite the contemplation of mystery. Questions to make the questioner marvel.
Which brings me, at last, to a man who made lots of conjectures about life and God, who asked pondering questions and received such a startling reply that it brought him to silence and awe.
“Where can wisdom be found?” asked the man Job. “And where is the place of understanding?... It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air…”2 God knew, Job believed—but he was not telling Job, who longed to know what life, specifically his life, was all about.
After a lot more pondering and some grumbling on Job’s part, God does answer him, getting his attention first of all with a whirlwind and a storm.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me… Have you commanded the morning? … Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? Did you give the horse his might? Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars...?”3
God may well have asked: who painted the spots on the rose? Who designed the workings of the ear that can already receive sounds in the mother’s womb? Who put the stripes on each tiger that are never repeated twice? Tell me, if you know!
When God had completed a long litany of masterpieces from his own hand, Job began to grasp the temerity of his position in the face of the inexplicable: “I know that you can do all things…things too wonderful for me, which I did not know—” 4
Simply: the rose, the ear, and the tiger are too wonderful.
1 Spoken by Emily, Our Town, Thornton Wilder
2The book of Job: 28:12, 19
3 Ibid, 38:4, 12, 18, 31, 36; 39:19, 26
4 Ibid, 42:2, 3b