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By Eric A. Clayton

What makes a sunflower bow? What leads it to lower its once-proud head, majestic mane cast downward to the dirt?

No longer does it stare directly into the face of the sun, drawn to follow that brightness, beauty gazing into beauty. No longer does it dare that bright star with its own eagerness — the field and its fellows have grown weary. The sun will have the last word.

Has it grown too tall, that sunflower? Its head too heavy? Is the dirt too dry or the stalk too fragile? Or does something darker move amongst the field of yellow — a pestilence, a pest, a problem?

No — it’s simply the natural order of things. The sunflower — once with its head held so proud and splendid and unflappable in the face of that blistering yellow orb — now bows low. It is tired just like its friends, its head pitched forward like an old man eager for a nap. An array of flowers stooped and sagging.

That whole field of the brightest yellow turns and genuflects to the setting sun. The field’s golden hues dimming with the day’s passing: yellow to beige to brown to dust.

And in that dust, new seeds are planted.

But first, one last bow.

…at least, that’s what I saw as we drove through the Pennsylvania farmland. I’m so used to passing fields of sunflowers perky and alive and gazing into the sun. That field — stretching beyond what I could see — was different.

The sunflowers were bowing. They were ready for harvest, the whole lot of them. This expansive scene of one flower after another doing the exact same thing, angled in the exact same way.

That field of flowers was dying. And yet, still they faced the sun.

I can’t shake that image, this idea that the sunflowers themselves were reverencing the sun, that somehow the impulse to incline their heads to the thing that sustained them is just built into what they are. They follow the sun in their prime; they bow to it in their decline.

That burning sun is constant.

And then I wondered about us, the People of God. How we, too, chase after the sun, sometimes without our even realizing it. How ready and eager we are to hold our heads high in God’s light when we are at our best — beautiful and strong and magnificent.

But when we are at our worst, in need, suffering and barely able to put one foot in front of the other — we find a place of shadow, a hermitage in which we can grapple with God and God’s will for us by ourselves. Stooped over, our souls sagging, do we find ourselves in the field with others? Do we genuflect still to the God of creation in tandem with our fellow creatures?

Or, do we hide away?

It’s unpleasant to share our warts, our struggles, our own personal shadows. But I can’t get this image of that field of sunflowers — thousands of them, all together, all mirror images of one another yet different — bowing toward the sun. That collective experience of worship and reverence and quiet prayer: I think that’s baked into who we are, too.

So, in our moments of struggle, let us seek out one another. Let us not flee into the shadow but stand in the twilight. Let us genuflect to the God of creation together.

And let us not forget those new seeds of hope rippling under the very soil upon which we stand.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.