Browsing Among the Lilies

okeefe lilyMy lover has gone down to his garden,
    to his spice beds,
to browse in the gardens
    and gather the lilies.
I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine.
    He browses among the lilies.
Song of Solomon 6:2-3 (NLT)

A few years ago Wendy and I were at the Des Moines Art Center browsing through the Center’s collection. We came across a painting by Georgia O’Keefe. “Oh my goodness,” Wendy softly exclaimed by side. “There’s no mistaking what that’s about!” O’Keefe is sometimes referred to as the mother of American modernism. She was particularly fond of painting enlarged flower blossoms, presenting them close up as if you are viewing just a part of the blossom through a magnifying glass. She often used lilies and sections of lilies.

O’Keefe came to prominence as a painter in the early part of the 20th century about the same time that Freud’s theories on psycho analysis rocked the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that O’Keefe’s paintings would be psychoanalyzed under the magnifying glass of Freudian thought just as she painted magnified views of her subjects. Despite the artists own denials, it has long been noted that her paintings seem to conjure up parallels to female sexual anatomy. Thus, Wendy’s soft exclamation upon viewing O’Keefe’s painting.

Lilies, in particular, have always had strong metaphorical parallels to sexuality dating back to ancient times. Roman and Greek mythology viewed the lily as a flower of purity, chastity and innocence. Even church tradition associates lilies with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Roman tradition was that Venus, the goddess of love, was so envious of the pure beauty of the lily that she gave the lily it’s large, long pistil in it’s center to make it less attractive. The pistil at the center of the lily’s flower has long been noted for its’ phallic metaphors; The center of the pure, white petals of the Calla Lilly being seemingly penetrated by the long, large pistil.

It is no wonder that Solomon’s ancient song of the budding, erotic love between the young king and the young woman of his harem would include imagery of the lilies. Solomon himself wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Georgia O’Keefe did not invent the parallel between the lily and a woman’s sexual organs. If anything, her art was natural prey for metaphorical connections humans have made between the lily and sexuality for thousands of years.

Now, read the verse above once more and imagine an infatuated young woman saying these words as she fantasizes about the man whom she wants to marry and become her lover. Does Solomon’s song really intend these sexual metaphors? A hormonal young man writes a song about the sexual tension between himself and a gorgeous young woman whom he desires sexually. It doesn’t take a giant leap of reason.

God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings with hormones and sexual desires. He created a natural order in which people grow, develop, desire one another and have sexual relations through which new life is created. He called it “good.” Too often in a pursuit of purifying the ranks from the sinful excesses with which many indulge  our natural appetites, the institutional church has thrown the baby out with the bath water. Many of us have forgotten to embrace, celebrate, and appreciate the natural God-given appetite which, when experienced as God intended, remains as pure as a lily.

4 thoughts on “Browsing Among the Lilies”

  1. 5 Turn your eyes away,
    for they overpower me.

    There is nothing quite like the eye contact with your spouse. You can tell a whole story with just a look. My wife and I have been married 21 years, together 25. We have experienced a lot together, so a certain look between the two of us and we connect. Outside of marriage, eye contact when communicating with someone is so important. Today’s generation of texters is missing out by failing to sit and study someones eyes while you talk. They say its a window to a person’s soul. So it may be.

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