Essentials

Learning from the Way a Wildflower Grows: Ikebana in the Liturgical Environment

May 19, 2009

PEG CAVANAUGH and STEPHANIE HANSON

SunflowersAfter a long cold Minnesota winter, it’s finally time to breathe in Easter. For the ministers of liturgical environment, nature has provided us with the perfect metaphor for the paschal mystery: the rich aroma of lilies and the gurgling of abundant water speak volumes to our senses. Resurrection!

Then comes ordinary time. Gone are the unmistakable environmental cues of Easter. However, the church garden is changing from week to week, full of imagery that speaks of God’s creation. Perhaps we could take a cue from our desert fathers and mothers, who invite us to consider a single fig tree, or a rambling grape vine. Jesus tells us to look at the lilies of the field and singles out the common mustard plant when teaching us about the kingdom.

How can we continue in this tradition of elevating something from nature as a metaphor for our faith? We found our answer in an unlikely place: a contemplative art form rooted in Buddhism.

The Ikebana Alternative

Too often our flower arrangements wind up looking busy and overcrowded, with as many flowers as possible in every vase. Much like our external culture, a more-is-better philosophy unconsciously prevails. In contrast to this western aesthetic, Ikebana is simple, spare and elegant. To quote the Ikebana International website,

Ikebana is . . . the Japanese art of flower arrangement. It is a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing, where nature and humanity are brought together. Its materials are living branches, leaves, grasses, and blossoms. Its heart is the beauty resulting from color combinations, natural shapes (and) graceful lines . . .“

Uncommon Materials

Red flowers IkebanaIn preparation for our first lesson, Carol, our sensei, or teacher, and Peg walked through Peg’s neighborhood, collecting (with permission) branches of American highbush cranberry, dogwood, and burning bush. They returned to Peg’s front yard where her crabapple tree was dropping its ripe fruit, attracting bees and becoming a stinky nuisance. Carol stopped before the tree as if she had found a treasure.

“May I take a few branches?” she asked.

“Be my guest,” said Peg, wondering what on earth Carol had in mind. How could a branch from a nuisance tree be useful? It all became clear in our first lesson.

Ikebana 101

Two arrangement of IkebanaDoing ikebana the first time was a little uncomfortable. When our ministers were learning this technique, it came as a challenge to our free from style. But Carol persisted in guiding us through the form. She provided us with shallow bowls and kenzans, which sit like a tiny bed of nails at the bottom of the container and hold everything in place. Then she told us to choose 4 branches of one type and 3 blooms of one type. The first stem must be measured according to the size of the container, the second must slant 25 degrees the third stem 45 degrees, and so on. Frankly, it felt stiff and clumsy.

Ann had chosen Peg’s crabapple branches and combined them with bright red zinnias from the farmers market. (See attached photo) Carol had us all stand back fifteen feet to see the finished arrangement. It was stunning-- bright, fragrant and gorgeous. The crabapple branch with its red fruit arched over the crimson blossoms. Between the flowers and branches there was empty space, so that each branch and bloom stood out. Instead of a dense ball of visual information, Ann’s arrangement accentuated individual elements and allowed us to appreciate something in nature that previously seemed insignificant. It was a perfect little garden unto itself.

Practical Advantages to Ikebana

» Using ikebana lowers the overall cost of flowers and stems, cutting the total number needed by 60-75 percent.

» Ikebana is easy to learn and even student work is presentable. The six arrangements that our environment ministers made at the first class went directly into the church. The parish response was immediate and enthusiastic.

» Ikebana can be done in every season. Traditional ikebana uses seasonal material, be they wintry pine boughs or springtime buds.

» Ikebana arrangements can be small or large, depending on the container, and the interior space that frames the arrangement.

» Ikebana uses everyday plant materials. Even common or invasive plants like buckthorn or dock can work!

Mary and IkebanaWe recommend finding a certified ikebana instructor through Ikebana International. Other than the instructor, the main cost is buying the metal kenzans, which cost approximately $20.00 a piece. (We ordered ours from a domestic supply house, Washi Accents). The containers do not need to be from Japan. They can reflect the liturgical season and character of your church. Try using a crystal bowl from the church’s collection, or a ceramic container on loan from a parishioner. A plain watertight container can be set inside a shallow woven basket in autumn. We have found traditional Japanese style containers at a local garden center.

Our ikebana class taught us to look at plants in a new way. “Learn from the way the wildflowers grow,” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. What did we learn from an over-ripe crabapple branch? It is fragrant, heavy, past its prime-- and absolutely perfect. Like the wildflowers that Jesus singled out, they are just as God intended them to be.

Photo credit:  Peg Cavanaugh

Peg Cavanaugh and Stephanie Hanson co-chair the Liturgical Environment Committee at the Church of Saint Cecilia in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Photos provided by Peg Cavanaugh and Stephanie Hanson.

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