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Photographing Dogwoods

Jim Coates

I struggled to find something to photograph. I had done the motorbike, the garden, the birds, the sunset. My family doesn’t do posing anymore. Sitting around outside in April unable to go far, I was drawn to an old battered dogwood we use to anchor one side of the hammock. Dogwoods are small trees. Branches from the red oaks above have crashed down on it over the years, tearing off limbs, and yet it has survived. The white blooms circled in the breeze. I came closer and started to look.

Later on, in the month I submitted the photos to a group I belong to that meets to critique. In-person, online, it seems to make no difference, we gather to support, encourage, and gently criticize our neighbors’ creative efforts. They seemed to appreciate the images, particularly the darker one, until someone asked:

“Did you take these for your Church?”

“No” I said. “Why?”

“Dogwood are a deeply religious symbol for many. Look at the four petals – the hands of the cross. Look at the indentations in the petals – where the nails went in. The cluster of green and yellow stamen in the center – the crown of thorns. The pure white of the petals – the cloth covering his body in the tomb. And they bloom at Easter.”

I stepped back and looked again, now seeing what they had mentioned. They were so right! “Thank you” I said, “for your insight. Dogwoods are transformed for me now. Every time I look at them, I will think of you all, and Jesus.” “Thank you” I said, “for being a group I can talk to.”

Why do I have to learn that lesson so often? A group that’s connected will always see more, feel more, reach further, than the individual. A task carried out by a group that is somehow together will be better than if an individual tried to do it alone. A caring group gives us a sense of belonging, a place to start from, a place to come back to. I am grateful for our Church community and its ability to reach us even in this strange and lonely time of disease.

Look again at those dogwoods around you!

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan theologian, has words which seem to fit the dogwood icon, and our spiritual needs in this time. This is taken from his meditation for April 17, 2020.

“It seems there is a cruciform shape to reality with cross purposes, paradoxes, and conflicting intentions everywhere. Jesus hangs right there amid them, not even perfectly balancing them, but just holding them (see Ephesians 2:13–22). This deserves a major “Wow!” because mere philosophy or even proper theology would never have come to this conclusion. The virtue of hope, with great irony, is the fruit of a learned capacity to suffer wisely, calmly, and generously. The ego demands successes to survive; the soul needs only meaning to thrive. Somehow hope provides its own kind of meaning, in a most mysterious way.”

- Jim Coates

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