Theology of the Trillium

Theology of the Trillium April 28, 2024


I got to see the trilliums one more time.

I went on a hike on Saturday Evening, to admire the ephemerals again. I’ve been admiring them everywhere I’ve gone for weeks. Ephemeral wildflowers are the type that don’t last all year long. They have tiny lives, for a few weeks in the spring and sometimes a few weeks in autumn, because that’s when the sun hits the forest floor. I keep getting out of my car to take pictures, or driving home the longest way down a winding country road to see them. The hills are covered with bluebells, trilliums and periwinkles.

I went to Jefferson Lake State Park in Richmond, and this turned out to be the right choice. They had wildflowers of all kinds: but best of all, they had more trilliums than I’d ever seen in one place.

A single trillium, white with faint pink streaks, blooming against green leaves on the forest floor at Jefferson Lake State Park.
image by Mary Pezzulo

Trilliums are my favorite wildflower. A trillium is a flower in the lily family, which looks like something out of a fairy tale. It has three long white petals spread out like a fleur-de-lis and a yellow dot at the center. There’s something uncanny about the blossom. It’s not raggedy like some wildflowers. It’s too formal to grow out in the forest instead of in a witch’s garden, and yet it does.  If I were a Sindarin elf in a Tolkein story, with ivory skin and radiant gold hair, I would wear a crown of trilliums on special occasions. As it is, I’m a short fat chronically ill woman with drab hair and flushed cheeks, and I like to take pictures of trilliums.

several trilliums growing on a green stalk at Jefferson Lake State Park
image by Mary Pezzulo

The trilliums were growing out of the shale rock that shot uphill to one side of me. On the other side was the lake, glassy with algae, dotted with lily pads, and noisy with Canada geese. The geese were holding quite a conference as I photographed my flowers. Some people hike to get the peace and quiet, but this lake was loud as a concert hall just then. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different.

A thicket of blackberry bushes in front of a large number of white trilliums at Jefferson Lake State Park
image by Mary Pezzulo

I went down to the bridge over a glittering brook, and of course I stopped to admire it and sing a folk song because I always sing when I’m on my hikes. Of course, the next thing I knew, I was up to my ankles in the freezing April water, and then I was admiring the bluebells. The bluebells were in among a patch of mayapples with their umbrellas unfurled. Mayapples are another forest plant that doesn’t look real. They look like a lily pad stuck on top of a stick for a joke. They look like someone is trying to trick a foolish person into thinking there’s such a thing as a mayapple.

bluebells and mayapples
image by Mary Pezzulo

I felt in such a hurry to take it all in. Pretty soon, ephemeral season will be over and the forest will be dark and cool. The flowers will be gone. I’ll find places to go swimming. Then it’ll be autumn, and all the green will turn to red, and then what? Will it be a nice cold season, with lots of icicles to admire? Did we just have a few uncannily muddy winters, as we sometimes do around here? Or are icy winters a thing of the past?

For just a moment, I was anxious.

I sat on the shore of the brook and put on my shoes and socks.

The next branch of the hike was uphill, with wildflowers on either side. I counted three shades of violet: purple, yellow, and ghostly white. I saw ghostly Bishop’s Cap and delicate curled up baby ferns. Every time I tried to photograph them, I couldn’t hold quite still enough, and the image came out blurry. And there, again, were trilliums– mostly white, with the occasional pink one just rarely enough that I thought I’d imagined it.

Again, I was anxious, this time for no reason.

Uphill to where there were some truly lovely beech trees, and then down. It was a bit difficult to pick my way down to the lake shore on the other side, because someone had been riding a horse on the trail, and the horse had left a mess. But another hiker had carefully left fat branches and long strips of bark across the middle of particularly muddy patches near the water.

Then I got to the hemlocks.

There are hemlock trees, towards the end of the lake trail. Hemlocks keep the ground dark and cool as night, even on a hot day in late spring. The resin of a hemlock tree smells different than a pine, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how. It just smells like a hemlock, that’s all.

There was the anxiety again. It welled up steadily, as if I was in great danger, even though nothing was wrong. I found myself praying under my breath, begging Jesus and the Virgin Mary not to hurt me.

Why did I think they were going to hurt me? To punish me for my religious trauma and my terror of going to confession? To force me to be a victim soul and offer up my terrible injury to appease the Father’s wrath? Were they going to send a bear to maul me, or trip me so I snapped my ankle on the trail? If I died out here, would I go to hell?

There was a wooden staircase down to the lake at this point, and I took it.

The staircase led to a pier where I could feel the water rocking, even though the surface of the lake was nearly flat.

I sat on the rough wooden planks and listened to the geese argue.

Hawks circled overhead.

Boaters cast their fishing lines a short distance away.

The water was so beautiful that I started to sing again.

For just one moment, all doubt vanished.

For a fraction of a moment, I found myself convinced of the existence of a Somebody who was infinitely, impossibly, eternally greater than I could imagine– so great that all of this beauty could not contain them. But the Somebody was also tiny, small, humble, so unabashed as to be free from the embarrassment of being small. The Somebody inhabited the silly noise of the geese and the majesty of the trillium, the glitter of late afternoon sun on the water, the curling of the fern, the smell of the hemlock. The Somebody dwelled in the fishermen chatting in the boat, and in the person who had ridden a horse down the trail earlier that day, and in me. They were pleased to dwell in Creation, because Creation is good, and because they delight in Creation. They delight in it because they are perfectly just, and Creation is so beautiful that the just response to Creation is delight.

Father of lights! You delight in your children, Father of Lights.
Every good and perfect gift comes from you. Every good and perfect gift comes from you, Father of Lights!

a view of Jefferson Lake from the pier at the far side of the lake trail
image by Mary Pezzulo

It started to rain, but that, too, was beautiful.

I made my way to the end of the trail and went home.

I’ll be anxious again soon, but I’m not anxious now.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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