Consider the Sunflower: The Parable We Need in Dark Times

by | Sep 23, 2021 | Current Events, GC36, Pope Francis, Prayers, Spirituality

Where am I looking? What am I focusing on? These are important questions. Ones I need to ask myself often. I need to learn how to look because my perspective, that is, where I look and how I look and what I focus on, can change the reality of what I see. Sometimes the difference between seeing sunshine and seeing darkness is simply looking the other way.

That’s why the sunflower is my favorite flower. It’s an odd choice for favorite, I’ll admit. It certainly isn’t the prettiest flower. Seeing cherry blossoms or jacarandas bloom makes the sunflower with its long spindly stem look plain, almost ugly. The sunflower certainly isn’t the most fragrant flower. Having grown up in the self-appointed lilac capital of the United States, I’ve certainly smelled better. The sunflower is my favorite flower, not for what it is, but for what it does— it moves.

The miracle of the sunflower is its movement. The movement is unnoticeable over short periods of time. But, over longer periods, the sunflower follows the light and the movement is discernible. Moving—facing the other direction— when I feel shrouded in darkness can seem like a herculean task. But it is the nature of every journey, transition and transformation to begin with the smallest of movements. Recognizing that I am in darkness can be the first step towards moving into the light. The entire about face may seem impossible before I have begun. But small steps, small shifts in vision, can be the change from darkness to light. And it is the miracle of progress that a little, makes a little more, a little easier. 

Pope Francis told the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, “We can always improve in praying consistently for consolation…to practice and teach this prayer of asking and begging for consolation is our main service of joy.”1 Like the sunflower seeking the sun, Francis encourages us to look for God in the world, reminding us that the first step to finding God, is searching for God. The sunflower reminds me to search, especially in the course of this ongoing pandemic. 

At this point, I feel like the pandemic will never end. I feel like I’ve been stuck inside for an eternity. Progress comes and then, once again, seems to slip away, returning us to preventative quarantines for sniffles and coughs and plans canceled to protect others. I am grateful (when I remember to be) that I am fortunate enough to be able to take days off work, staying home without having to worry about putting food on the table. Many of my neighbors aren’t so lucky. But when plans get canceled again and again, it’s easy for me to lose hope. The sunflower reminds me that where I look is important. 

“Go to gratitude” is the faithful motto of one of my favorite Jesuits. It’s his advice for many of life’s problems. The simple suggestion, “remember what you’re grateful for,” frustrates me sometimes. When I hear it, it can feel like a dismissal, as if my problems, those seemingly insurmountable obstacles, are being minimized and treated as unimportant. But really, it’s a reminder that perspective is key. Gratitude, like progress, has a strange way of growing: a little gratitude makes a little more, a little easier. When I can find one small thing I’m grateful for, the gratitude grows, and my problems seem to take up a little less space. That’s why I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal. Every evening before I go to bed I try to write down ten things that I’m grateful for. The list often looks the same from day to day: shelter, food, friends, family. But the act of remembering that I have much to be grateful for seems to help me maintain perspective. It’s the sunflower inspired about face that I need.  

It’s easy to focus on what’s going wrong: canceled plans, another quarantine, fires, hurricanes, floods, kidnappings, violence. Focusing on what I’m grateful for—that I’m blessed and privileged to be able to stay home and protect myself and others, that I have a home, that I and my family are healthy, and that I have a strong and supportive community around me– keeps me noticing the miracles in my life. The sunflower reminds me that I can choose to look in a different direction and sometimes looking to the light is as simple as looking the other way.

Francis and the sunflower encourage me to search for what I want, to look for what I need. If I need light in my life, I should look for it, opening my eyes to the blessings and miracles all around me. For, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It may appear that we are stuck in darkness, but sometimes a change of perspective, a little about face, is all we need to see that the smallest light can illuminate even the darkest of spaces. So, where’s your light? 


  1. Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus

Brett Helbling, SJ   /   All posts by Brett