Lilies of the Valley have long been one of my favorite flowers—and here in Illinois, they are just at their peak of blossoming. They grew in my backyard as a child, and I would kneel at the edge of their dense leaves, trying to inhale the elusive scent over and over again. My grandmother loved them, and so did I.
At the Morton Arboretum—just a short drive from us—there is also a bed of lilies of the valley. Michael and I go to the Arboretum as often as we can, and one of the many delightful places there is the “Fragrance Garden.” In the small garden, you can walk through roses and lilacs and other lovely flowers that fill the space with a heady fragrance. Flowers climb up vines, stretch up to the sun, blossom on tall bushes. But it is the area right outside of that area, though, that I love the most, because the ground leading up to that garden is covered—absolutely covered—in lilies of the valley. Thick greenery conceals the earth, punctuated here and there by tiny white bells that shake when the wind touches them. But these bells give off no sound. Each summer we try to get to the fragrance garden when the lilies are abundant—there is no smell like it on earth.
Just this past Sunday, I was on a walk with a friend to the little park near our home. That park also holds lilies of the valley, we stopped by one grove to look smell them. My friend was not as familiar with the flower, and as we approached the lilies, I spoke out loud:
“They smell wonderful, but you have to humble yourself to enjoy them.”
I surprised myself. What I said was true, but the thought had not been premeditated—it simply came out when I saw those blossoms. They are so low to the ground, and yet so fragrant. And unless they are picked and held in a bouquet (what an extravagant bouquet that would be), these tiny lilies have a cost to them: if you want to smell them, you must sink down to your knees, lean forward, and brush your nose against the white bells. It is impossible to smell them standing five or six feet overhead. You might receive an occasional drifting scent, of course, but to really inhale the sweetness requires bending low, nearly prostrate.
The gift of the lilies’ perfume comes at the cost of pride. It takes humility to enjoy them.
As I bent my knees and leaned over the tiny flowers, I inhaled deeply. I stayed there for a moment and remembered my childhood backyard. I remembered my grandmother. The dirt filled the creases in my knees as I knelt there, and I understood that moment as a picture of what my life should always look like: bending low, willing to humble myself to receive the gifts around me.
There are so many false pedestals I can put myself on—pedestals built on pride that keep me from seeing the gifts in my own life. I’m too busy to stop and talk with that person. My house is too messy to have that friend over. I’m too exhausted to help with that event. I’m too financially stretched to give to anything else. And while there can be wisdom in some of my hesitations, sometimes it is just pride. I can feel important when I’m busy. I can feel protective of my identity when my house is trashed. I can feel defensive for my own sleep when I’ve been up with a sick baby. I can clench my fists with money when I see myself as the provider rather than God.
But humility offers another path: I will bend low and receive the gifts in front of me. I will talk to that person at the grocery store even though I am busy—and she and I will both be surprised by God’s presence in the space. I will have that friend over even when the house is a mess, and we will talk about the most important things in life—and the house is not one of them. I will offer my time to helping a friend out and will find myself refreshed in the process. I will give generously and find the words of Scripture ringing through me that is really is more blessed to give than to receive.
Like lilies of the valley, the best things are often experienced when we bend low and let go of our pride for the greater gift.