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John Stokes and Mary's Gardens

Flower Theology

– John S. Stokes Jr.


Over forty years of research undertaken by the religious project, Mary's Gardens, has documented hundreds of flowers symbolically associated with Mary's life, mysteries, excellences and divine prerogatives - as recorded by botanists, folklorists and lexicographers.

This flower symbolism serves as a mirror of the popular faith of which it was an expression in the countrysides of medieval Christendom.

Prominent among the Marian flower symbols are those reflecting Mary's immaculate maidenly spirituality; the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, Mary's Rosary Mysteries; and her divinely bestowed privileges and prerogatives.

Flower associations with Mary's divine prerogatives include, for example, those associated with her Assumption (dogmatically defined just as we were starting our Marian research and reflection in the fall of 1950). Among these are the apocraphyal legend of the roses and lilies found in place of Mary's body in her tomb; St. Bede's 6th Century discernment of the translucent whiteness of the petals of the white lily as symbolizing the purity of Mary's body and the gold of its anthers as symbolizing the glory of her soul, as she was assumed into heaven; and the lists of grains, herbs and flowers included in the Assumption Bundles, dating back to the 9th century, blessed at the altar on the feast of the Assumption - for which the ritual is preserved today in the Roman Rite.

Similar flower associations were found for the dogmas of Mary's Divine Maternity, her Perpetual Virginity, and her Immaculate Conception; and also for other traditional doctrines such as Mary's Divine Intercession, her Mediation of all Grace, her Protection of the faithful from evil, her Spiritual Motherhood of Christians and the Church, and her Queenship of Heaven and Earth.

For us these flower associations prompted a richness of Marian reflection, meditation and prayer as we tended the Flowers of Our Lady in Mary Gardens through the months and years.

Deepening of Understanding Through Ecumenical Dialog

Then, abruptly, in 1964, when we entered into the Catholic-Protestant dialogues following upon the Second Vatican Council, we were confronted with an entirely different view of Our Lady.

In these dialogues we found that Catholic devotion to Mary was viewed by participating Protestants as an unscriptural and idolatrous elevation of Mary to a position replacing the mediating role of Jesus between God and humankind. In this they were vehement in their rejection of the Catholic teaching that belief in the dogmatically defined doctrines of Mary's divine prerogatives - especially the recently defined dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption - was necessary for salvation.

To place this difference in a rational context for dialogue, we sought to find as a starting point a more fundamental creedal religious concept we all held in common.

In this we found that recourse, as in Sheeban's Mariology, to the doctrine of Mary's Divine Maternity, from the Apostles' Creed, as a starting point for the derivation of her other divine prerogatives was unacceptable to Protestant participants, even to those who accepted the divinity of Christ, because they did not accept the concept of Christ's divinity at birth - seeing it rather as revealed or realized subsequently.

Basis of Marian Theology in the Purpose of Creation

We therefore started with the creedal belief in the Creation, proposing that God's purpose in Creation, as stated by Thomas Aquinas, was to show forth and share the divine goodness with humans, who, to this end, were created in the divine image and likeness - in consequence of which, as stated in the old catechisms, "We have been created to know, love and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next."

We proposed further that, implicit in the will of the infinite God to share the divine goodness, of attributes and action, with finite, created human persons, was the desire to share it to the fullest extent possible.

Then, drawing on the scriptural teaching that human nature was "created in the divine image and likeness", we proposed that this made possible both the human Incarnation of God the Son, as true God and true man, in Jesus (introducing at this point the creedal doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation); and also a bestowed fullness of purely human sharing in and instrumentation of the divine - through the immaculate and humble openness to God's grace and divine indwelling of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The divine sharing bestowed upon and received to its fullest by Mary, as announced by the Archangel Gabriel - made possible her human cooperation as co-Parent, and also, mystically, as co-Creator ("The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways . . .") with God the Father; as Co-Redeemer, at the foot of the Cross, with God the Son; and as co-Sanctifier and co-Renewer of the face of the earth with God the Holy Spirit for the building of God's earthly Kingdom - of which she thus became Queen, in union with Christ the King.

We affirmed the Catholic belief that Mary, "our tainted nature's solitary boast", was able to enter into such divine cooperation through the utter immaculateness of her maidenly spiritual perfection and holiness, which made possible her fullness of grace and the divine indwelling - not as a challenge to the mediatorship of Christ, the creation of the Father, or the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, but as an initial fulfillment of the desire of the Trinity for the fullest sharing of created humans in the divine goodness of attributes and action.

Each new sharing of Mary in the divine creating, redeeming, sanctifying and renewing action was and is possible because of her perpetual virginity - her perpetual immaculate purity and spiritual openness, body and soul, in heaven as on earth - enabling her to receive the actual graces for these ongoing actions, and also the fullness of illumination, wisdom and power which God wills to bestow at each moment, in keeping with the purpose of Creation. It is because of her perpetually preserved purity, through grace, that Mary said of herself to Bernadette at Lourdes, in the present and perpetual sense, "I am the Immaculate Conception".

Mary is, therefore, the human model for our own showing forth and sharing of the divine goodness - in keeping with the purpose of Creation for all humans. Through moral and ascetic openness to grace and to union with God's indwelling presence, we, too, possessing the same human nature, have the potential - in accordance with Paul's teaching of our call to divine adoption, and membership in Christ - for the sharing and showing forth of the divine goodness of attributes and action, to the sublime degree of the saints. Those who are ascetically more perfected, if God so deigns, may be raised in grace and illumination to mystical participation in the very sharing among the Divine Persons in the interior of the Trinity - as was surely Mary, the "Mystical Rose".

Theological Basis of Marian Devotion

We then explained how to this end Catholics pray the Rosary, in which - in love for the Trinity, for Mary, for our fellow humans, and for the Divine Plan and the building of God's earthly/heavenly Kingdom - we pray the Our Father and Hail Mary's while meditating successively on each of fifteen mysteries of Mary's life, "that by imitating what they contain, we may obtain what they promise." We imitate Mary's holiness in the context of each Mystery that we may obtain, according to our capacity, a measure of the actual graces, light, wisdom and power of the divine action shared and shown forth by her in the same Mystery - as in the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, etc.

In thus deriving the doctrine of Mary's divine prerogatives from creedal faith in Creation and its divine purpose, and from faith in the spiritual potential and calling of created human nature, we were able to move Catholic-Protestant ecumenical dialogs in which we participated away from Protestant charges of Catholic idolatry, superstition and sentimentality in regard to Mary to a reasoned consideration of God, Creation, human nature, the Trinity and the Incarnation.

In this it was demonstrated why belief in Mary's divine prerogatives is, in the Catholic view, indeed necessary for salvation - because their very derivation requires and gives proper clarification to the creedal beliefs in God, Creation, Trinity and the Incarnation, deemed necessary for the salvation of the world - already won in essence through Christ' victory over evil on the Cross, but still to be realized in history.

Individual salvation, on the other hand, is considered in Catholic teaching as coming from good will and good conscience - regardless of one's philosophy, religion, denomination or belief in Mary - with the expectation, according to Jesus' teaching of "Seek and you shall find", that anyone who commits himself or herself to a disinterested seeking of the truth of life will, given enough time, arrive, through providence and grace, at a belief in an infinite, eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, loving, creating God, who out of love for humans has surely established a universal truth source for all humans, which on examination is found to be One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church.

We rejoiced that our years of reflection in the Mary Garden on the flower symbols of Mary's divine prerogatives had given us a certainty of conviction regarding these prerogatives, which enabled us, when called upon, effectively to defend them and to derive them from the more generally accepted creedal articles of faith. We rejoiced also that one outcome of this dialog was a more confident affirmation of Marian doctrine and devotion by other Catholic participants in the dialogues, who previously had erroneously tended to downplay them as an approach to reconciliation with Protestants.

Marian Theology and Devotion Implicit in Marian Flower Symbols

When asked, we explained that we had reached this certainty through working with Marian flower symbols reflecting the profound belief of rural Christians in the medieval Age of Faith. In this we made reference to St. Louis de Montfort's teaching that true devotion to Mary originates from simple interior, tender, holy, constant and disinterested devotion of the heart (such as that characteristic of devotion to Mary through her flowers), rather than from intellectually critical or scrupulous examination of texts, etc. We expressed our joy over the thousands of letters we had received at Mary's Gardens through the years - in response to articles and religious press reports - inquiring about the Flowers of Our Lady with beautiful expressions of such simple faith in Mary, shared with us in the Communion of Saints.

This also provided an opportunity to point out that infallible dogmatic pronouncements do not originate from the popes, "from the top down", but are papal definitions, ex cathedra, of beliefs that came from the faithful from the deposit of faith spiritually nurtured and clarified through the centuries, as ascertained by the bishops through extensive world-wide inquiry.

In this we expressed our own hope for the early dogmatic definition of the widely held and liturgically celebrated doctrine of Mary's Mediation of all Grace - discerned by Pope Pius XII at the time of his dogmatic definition of the doctrine of Mary's Assumption as then "not yet ripe in the mind of the Church."

The dogmatic definition of Mary as universal Mediatrix will serve both as a further demonstration and clarification of God's will for the fullness of sharing of the goodness of the divine action with humans, through Mary; and also as an inducement to all the faithful - that God's will be done for human sharing in the divine action - to make full recourse to Mary's mediation of the graces of conversion and the building of the Peaceable Kingdom, so needed today.

Comprehensiveness of of Marian Flower Symbolism

At the conclusion of one Catholic-Protestant dialogue series we showed, on request, color slide photos of some of the Marian Flower symbols which had led us to reflect on Mary's holiness and divine prerogatives.

In this we pointed out that all flowers were considered as symbols of Mary's immaculate holiness, and that for this reason May, the month of flowering, was dedicated to Mary, the "Flower of flowers", as she was called by Chaucer. Thus, all Flowers of Our Lady have a dual symbolism: while symbolizing particular facets of Mary's life, mysteries and prerogatives through their forms, they are all at the same time, through their general characteristics as flowers, symbols of her immaculateness which enabled her reception of and participation in the bestowed mysteries and prerogatives.

In addition, certain flowers, plants and trees from the scriptures were adopted by the Church Fathers, and incorporated in the Liturgy, as specific Immaculate Conception symbols, such as the Blossoming Stem of Jesse from Isaiah's prophecy of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah; and Rose Plant, Lily Among Thorns, Exalted Cedar, and Fruitful Olive Tree, from the Sapiential books. We can consider that such symbols were reflected on by Mary herself as she read the scriptures, in her spiritual formation. Later, other flowers were also adopted as Immaculate Conception symbols, such as Yucca, "Tower of Ivory", from the Litany of Loreto.

We first showed a slide photo of the "Annunciation with Flower Symbols" from a 16th Century French Book of Hours - which exhibits a panel of individual symbolical flowers beneath a miniature painting of the Virgin Mary with the announcing Archangel Gabriel, a vase of white Annunciation Lilies, and the descending dove of the Holy Spirit.

Among these flowers are those which symbolize the maidenly, immaculate, purity of Holy Mary, through her openness and fidelity to the graces bequeathed her for the preservation of her Immaculate Conception:

White Lily: "Annunciation Lily", symbol of Mary's Immaculate Purity.

Impatiens: "Our Lady's Earrings", symbolical pure adornments of the ears of Mary who heard the word of God and kept it.

Violet: symbol of Mary's humility "regarded by the Lord".

Lady-Slipper:  "Our Lady's Slipper", symbol of Mary's graceful Visitation trip to visit Elizabeth in the hill country: "All her steps were most beauteous."

Thistle-Down: another Visitation symbol, from its graceful movement in air currents.

Others symbolize some of Mary's divinely bestowed prerogatives, as Mother of God, possible through her immaculate holiness:

Rose: symbol of the Blessed Virgin of prophecy, the Rose plant bearing the flower, Christ.

Daisy: "Mary's Flower of God"

Periwinkle: "Virgin Flower", emblem of the Blessed Virgin.

Columbine: symbol of the dove of the Holy Spirit, Mary's overshadowing, indwelling, divine Spouse.

Pansy: "Trinity Flower", symbol of the Trinity, first revealed to Mary.

Strawberry: "Fruitful Virgin", in flower and fruit at the same time.

Everlasting: symbol of the eternity of Mary's loving mediation in heaven.

Flower Symbols of Mary's Divinely Bestowed Prerogatives

From this we went on to show slides of individual flowers whose symbolism referred to Mary's divine prerogatives.

Following the dogmatic definition of the doctrine of the Divine Maternity of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in AD 432, the frontal image of the Mother and Child was adopted as its visual representation. In the English countryside the wild arum, with leaf-like spathe and rod-like pistil, was seen as a Virgin and Child symbol and commonly known to this day as "Lady-Lords".

The Flowering Stem of Jesse (grape vine) - symbol of the virgin birth of the divine Redeemer from Isaiah - was extended to the blooming rose, as in the Christmas carol, "Lo a Rose 'ere Blooming". Other flowers of the Sacred Nativity include "Star of Bethlehem"; "Our Lady's Bedstraw" - which, according to old legend, acquired its golden color when the glorious new-born divine Savior, true God and true Man, was laid on it in the manger - and "Our Lady's Milkdrops", also from legend and recalling, or anticipating, the Nursing Madonna in art.

The doctrine of Mary's Perpetual Virginity, dogmatically defined in the twelfth century, was seen to be symbolized in the garden by the strawberry - in flower and fruit at the same time. Additionally there are numerous "Virgin's" flowers.

Mary's Transfixion as Co-Redemptrix with Christ is represented by "Mary's Tears" and "Mary's Sword" of sorrow, and by flower symbols of Christ's Passion and Death on the Cross, in which Mary participated spiritually through motherly compassion, grace and union with the Lord, who was with her - such as "Crown of Thorns", "Christ's Lash", "Christ's Blood Drops", "Christ's Back", "Christ's Knee", "Christ's Cross" and the composite symbolism of the "Passion Flower".

Besides the Assumption flowers previously mentioned, there is the white day lily, known as Assumption Lily from it's mid-August bloom around the time of the August 15th liturgical feast of the Assumption. The marigold ("Mary's Gold"), symbolizes the heavenly glory of Mary, the "Woman clothed with the Sun" of Revelations.

Mary's prerogative of divine intercession was symbolized by "Mary's Heart" - recalling the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as scripturally implicit at the Marriage Feast in Cana.

Mary's Mediation of All Grace - symbolized by flowers such as: "Our Lady's Keys" (to the storehouses of heavenly grace), "Ladder to Heaven", "Heavenly Way" and "Mary's Candle" ("The Virgin Mary flies over all the land, with heaven's fire in her hand") - was scripturally implicit at the Visitation, when John the Baptist "lept" in Elizabeth's womb on the arrival of Mary bearing Jesus in her womb; at the foot of the Cross, when the piercing of Mary's faithful soul with the sword of sorrow, of Simeon's prophecy, inspired (in John and through history) the grace-inspired love of Christ now revealed in many hearts; and Pentecost in the tongues and power of conversion conferred on the Apostles after nine days of prayers with Mary in the upper room.

Mary's spiritual Motherhood was symbolized by flowers such as "Sweet Mary", "Mary-Love", "Mary's Help", "Eyes of Mary" suggesting her eyes of mercy, "Mary's Hand" of pity", and "Our Lady's Mantle" protecting the faithful from evil.

And Mary's queenly and motherly sorrow - as revealed at La Salette - over her children's suffering from human delay in the coming of God's Kingdom was symbolized by "Queen's Tears".

We then showed flowers symbolizing Mary's other Rosary Mysteries, concluding with "Mary's Crown", of the glorious Mysteries.

In 1970, we had an opportunity to present the Flowers of Our Lady to a dialogue panel, in a one hour television program, "Flower Power" of the ecumenical and social issues series, INPUT, produced for the Philadelphia CBS affiliate, Channel 10. This program received the most viewer mail, all favorable, of over sixty programs produced in a three year period.

o O o

Now that the dialogues are long over and we have gone "back to the garden", a continuing fruit of thus drawing on our meditations on the rich content of the flower symbols as testimony to Our Lady's holiness and prerogatives has been an ever-increasing quickening in the garden of our faith and prayer through these flower associations.

Copyright Mary's Gardens 1995

The John Stokes and Mary's Garden collection was transferred to the Marian Library in May 2013. In addition to his archives, manuscripts, artwork, and personal library, John S. Stokes also donated his extensive website. It was transferred to the Marian Library in 2010. This particular entry is archived content original to Stokes' Mary's Gardens website. It is possible that some text, hyperlinks, etc. are outdated.


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