Garden of Penitence

The wooden doors of the old confessionals at the back of our church were carved with a window box of botanical symbolism to inspire those waiting for the sacrament.

flowers 1In the center panel of the center door, the distinctive long tubular flowers of hyssop surround an IHS (first three letters of IHSOUS, or Jesus in Greek) monogram. Historically, the bitter herb was used in ancient Jewish purification rituals and at Passover. A woody shrub, it is the symbol of penitence.

The other flowers in that IHS panel — with four chubby, rounded, slightly notched  petals — appear to be dogwood. Four petals symbolize the cross and the crucifixion. Dogwood can also mean regret for sins (and, perhaps, in the modern era, one might find an added dimension of reflection on diversity and change, since dogwood growers have developed hybrids, combining characteristics from multiple varieties,  in an effort to preserve American trees against devastating fungus blight).

flowers 3In the bottom panel of the middle door,  gentian is a characteristically-shaped four- or five-petal  flower, often bright blue in color. It is said to have been named for King Gentius of ancient Illyria on the Balkan Peninsula, who is thought to have discovered its laxative medicinal properties. It is a symbol of penance and mortification.

The cutouts, or empty spaces in the same panel are in the shape of thistles. Thistles symbolize cause of sin so their absence suggests that the cleansing quality of the gentian is effective!

flowers 4The wreaths in the bottom panels of the two side doors are a little ambiguous. They could be acanthus, which would symbolize expulsion from Eden and a  fall from grace. They could also be laurel wreaths, symbolizing victory over temptation. The berry at the center of each panel is more characteristic of laurel, but perhaps how you interpret them depends on your state of mind!

The “Language of Flowers” was a popular notion in Victorian times, when friends and lovers were supposed to have sent secret coded love messages to each other using little bouquets of carefully-chosen symbolic flowers (not so secret, actually, since the symbols were pretty well understood by everyone at that time). In fact, floral symbolism has long roots, going back through history across cultures. The Bible is full of plant symbolism (faith like a mustard seed).  Also our patron Saint Francis de Sales once referred to Christians as “living plants of the church”!

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