One of the suggestions from veteran tour-takers was to choose a theme for one’s photos–because the seventeenth time one sees a nearly identical photo of the statue of St. Peter from Capernaum, one feels a little like screaming. But if you choose a photo theme, say, stray cats, and spend your trip trying to get feral felines in the same frame as famous landmarks, then you have a) a more interesting photo album, 2) the fond memories of exasperated arm-waving, tender cooing, and forced negotiation with the feline population of Israel, and 3) an up-to-date rabies inoculation.
I couldn’t come up with a photo theme before I went to Israel, but as I’ve been taking pictures, I find myself focusing on the local flora of the sites we visit, and trying to find ways to tell the stories of these places through the flowers.
Like the cyclamens of Nazareth.
As the visited Mount Precipice, which overlooks Nazareth, I was struck by all these little purple flowers growing between the limestone rocks that lie on the hill like fossilized dust bunnies. They’re not something you notice right away…they kind of jump out at you once you’ve stared at the slopes of white boulders long enough. But once you notice them, you can see that they’re everywhere.
They made me think of Mary, mother of God, because they reminded me of violets. Violets remind me of Mary because…OK, well, to be honest, because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with medieval manuscripts about floral symbolism, and violets and Mary are a favorite pairing. See, violets are blue, just like that poem says, and blue is totally Mary’s color. Also, there’s a folk legend about violets that once you sniff them, you get a noseful of this lovely delicate scent they emit, but after that first sniff you can’t smell it anymore. (I’ve never been able to personally ascertain the truth in this, but your input is most welcome, internets!) And this ties in beautifully with the whole virgin, untouched, unsoiled, unsinning (for Catholics) reputation that Mary’s got.
(And, honestly, makes me want to throw pillows at the wall, because I’ve always found Mary’s purity the least impressive part of what she did and who she was. I’m far more struck by the radical ideology and punk-rock style she embraces, as demonstrated in the words of the Magnificat. But the connection is forged, and now violets are for Mary.)
Obviously cyclamens are not violets, but like violets, they’re a tiny, humble, easy-to-overlook little plant, but are strikingly beautiful once you look at them. They could borrow the shrinking violet’s reputation for humility, turning their faces to the ground as they do, but their petals spiral up toward the sky, like a dancer whose raised arms belies her bent head. Their foliage is dark bluey-green with silver veining, and sometimes the silver looks like Christmas trees.
They seem peculiarly suited to the hills of Nazareth, where once a young girl lived, and walked, and drew water, and wondered what her life would be like and what she’d wear on her wedding day and how many children she would have and whether the world she lived in would ever change and if so, if she could ever be a mover or a shaker or whether she’d always be a dreamer of dreams. Until one day an angel broke into her world and invited her into God’s great and mysterious plan for salvation. I imagine that she looked into those eyes of flame, and the wings of drifted snow fogged the edge of her vision. And that she bent in and asked the angel to repeat itself. I imagine she paused. I hope she laughed. And that finally, with a rustle of blue fabric, she raised her arms and bent her head and said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”