“Stop and smell the roses” is a bit of a cliché, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Or the peonies or the columbines or whatever else is around. In my case, it’s bearded irises, my absolute favorite flower. And I suppose that “stopping” does not really describe how I went about admiring them or smelling them as the lovely blossoms reached their peak all over my neighborhood this week. It was something more like “intentionally schedule time to smell the irises.” I could see them as I drove by in the car, on the way to work, appointments, commitments, important things to do. But I wanted more than to glimpse them from the car windows, for a split instant, separated by distance and a pane of glass. So I decided to go on a walk around the neighborhood to look closely at the irises.
If only it were so simple. Such a walk could take hours. When could I do such a thing? Such a frivolous, un-important thing, with no constructive purpose whatsoever. Nothing would actually be accomplished by this activity. Surely, therefore, it was a waste of time and could only be scheduled when I didn’t have more important things to do. After some anxious deliberating, I decided that I would go on my iris walk during my regularly-scheduled walking time, the slot of time that normally would be spent at the gym, inside a windowless, flourescent-lit room, walking on a treadmill.
Now, the treadmill is a new-ish way of exercising for me, and it certainly has its advantages. Most noteworthy of these is that I can read while treading, thus doing two important activities at once. I also like the numbers – all those lit-up numbers that tell me how fast I am walking, how far, what my heart rate is, and (oh joy!) how many calories I am burning. The flashing, counting, ticking numbers have the effect of making me feel like I am accomplishing something, getting a “real” workout, like I can check “take good care of myself” off the to-do list.
The iris walk would involve no ticking, flashing numbers. I strolled around the neighborhood at an easy pace and stopped often to closely gaze at, marvel over, and smell the irises I found. They were amazing. Gorgeous. I took time to notice the colors, the details of each bloom, even individual petals. I delighted in the details of the petals – the veins in them, the ruffles, how the colors change and swirl from the centers out to the edges, the whimsical variety of those little beard things from which the bearded iris gets is name. And I smelled each one, deeply breathing in the lemon-ey, grape-ey, honey-ish scent. I know that I did not walk as far or as fast as I do on the treadmill, that it wasn’t as good a “cardio” work-out, that I didn’t burn as many calories. In fact, the iris walk probably doesn’t count as a work-out at all. But I came away from it feeling better than I had in a long, long time, much better than I feel after treading on the mill. Something deep in me, some un-nameable longing or thirst, was satiated. Everything looked more beautiful. My soul had been opened and moved in a way that I associate with profound experiences of prayer.
We are so quick to assume that if we cannot justify an activity in a utilitarian way, then it is not worthwhile. If I am not working, do not accomplish something or burn a certain number of calories, then the activity must be a waste of time. We think that we can only engage in such useless frivolity after we have gotten everything done that we are supposed to do. A walk simply for the purpose of enjoying the flowers feels ridiculous and frivolous unless I can classify it as “exercise.” But I was reminded, on the iris walk, that this outlook is deeply problematic. The most important things in life – love, prayer, beauty – are, in their truest forms, devoid of utilitarian purpose and not about accomplishing anything at all. They certainly cannot be measured or quantified. Our ability to apprehend and participate in these aspects of existence is part of what it means to be made in the image of God. And if we deprive ourselves of these things because they are not useful for accomplishing whatever it is we think we need to accomplish, then we are doing nothing less than distorting our souls, shutting down the part of our inmost selves where we are most likely to encounter God. This is the wisdom that lies behind Sabbath-taking. Give up the ticking numbers, the measuring and quantifying, the relentless busy-ness and doing, and pause to connect with those aspects of life that cannot be reduced to utilitarian purposes, for time enough to soak in sacred mystery. Time enough to be breathed into, nurtured, moved within and humbled and to remember that there is something more.
Maybe flower-sniffing is not your thing. But what is? What is the thing that you may only be catching a fleeting glimpse of through the glass as you speed by on the way to something that seems more important? Maybe the thing that’s most important is that which you are rushing past. If there is something that sparks longing in you, something that you yearn to take the time to soak in more, to delight in more, to look deeply at and behold, then do so. Just because there are no ticking, flashing numbers does not mean that it is not worthwhile. Perhaps you will find yourself soaking in, delighting in, beholding what your soul needs most.