“The barracks were full of them. The image was repeated over and over again. Butterflies. They were everywhere I looked. Some were crude. Others were quite detailed.” In 1946 Dr. Elizabeth Kuler-Ross visited the Maidenek concentration camp. The children’s barracks were particularly sorrowful, with toys and shoes scattered and left from lives now gone. But there was something else, too. The walls were covered with hundreds of butterflies, scratched and etched with fingernails and pebbles.
Why butterflies? Kubler-Ross said it took her 25 years of working with dying patients to fully understand. I get how–on a physical level–the butterfly reminds us that at death we physically leave our bodies the way that butterflies leave their cocoons. Or, how–on a spiritual level–the butterfly reminds us of the potential for transformation that we go through on an ongoing basis, as we evolve, grow and change.
But this story goes way beyond that. These were children, living in camps where they knew they were going to die, and yet found something within them to leave a message of hope; while their bodies might not make it, the butterflies somehow represented their souls, and they would live on in a different form.
This is somber stuff. The kind of thing I prefer to talk about cerebrally, but am uneasy when it–quite literally–touches my heart and my life.
I’m first in line to hear any story about how butterflies are beautiful, how they remind us of our beauty and the need for beauty in our lives, and how they are symbolic of transformation, change, and connection. However, I’m not so keen on the part of the story reminding me that this transformation happens only when I embrace my life as temporal, fragile and ephemeral. I’d rather my life be irritation free. And I don’t do well when my spirit weighs heavy.
These children knew that butterflies teach us about saying goodbye. And the realization that life is interwoven with loss, disappointment, pain and the bittersweet.
But here’s the deal: I can pretend it doesn’t hurt (telling myself that I can live without it or that it wasn’t important or that it didn’t really touch my heart), but I do so at the loss of the very beauty in life I so desperately seek.
So what if? What if embracing the temporal nature of our life–that butterfly nature within–is about the permission to fall shamelessly and wholeheartedly in love with this moment? Whatever it may bring. And what if this permission to fall wholeheartedly in love with this moment is about hearing the voice of grace?
This morning I was guest preacher here on Vashon, with the good people at Burton Community Church. My sermon title: Grace. I told them that God’s grace is our ballast. But grace does not appear where we imagine, and with our selective blindness we can be easily derailed.
I read to them a story I needed to hear. (My best sermons happen when I need to hear them.) Jean Houston writes, “When I was about fourteen I was seized by enormous waves of grief over my parents’ breakup. I had read somewhere that running would help dispel anguish, so I began to run to school every day down Park Avenue in New York City. I was a great big overgrown girl (5 feet eleven by the age of eleven) and one day I ran into a rather frail old gentleman in his seventies and knocked the wind out of him. He laughed as I helped him to his feet and asked me in French-accented speech, “Are you planning to run like that for the rest of your life?” (Excerpts from Jean’s interactions with “Mr. Tayer.” Jean did not find out until after his death that Mr. Tayer was Teilhard de Chardin)
“I will go with you,” he informed me.
And thereafter, for about a year or so, the old gentleman and I would meet and walk together often several times a week in Central Park.
He had a long French name but asked me to call him by the first part of it, which was “Mr. Tayer” as far as I could make out. The walks were magical and full of delight. Not only did Mr. Tayer seem to have absolutely no self-consciousness, but he was always being seized by wonder and astonishment over the simplest things. He was constantly and literally falling into love. I remember one time when he suddenly fell on his knees, his long Gallic nose raking the ground, and exclaimed to me, “Jeanne, look at the caterpillar. Ahhhh!” I joined him on the ground to see what had evoked so profound a response that he was seized by the essence of caterpillar. “How beautiful it is”, he remarked, “this little green being with its wonderful funny little feet. Exquisite! Little furry body, little green feet on the road to metamorphosis.”
He then regarded me with equal delight. “Jeanne, can you feel yourself to be a caterpillar?”
“Oh yes.” I replied with the baleful knowing of a gangly, pimply faced teenager.
“Then think of your own metamorphosis.” he suggested. “What will you be when you become a butterfly, une papillon, eh? What is the butterfly of Jeanne?” (What a great question for a fourteen-year-old girl!)
His long, gothic, comic-tragic face would nod with wonder. Old Mr. Tayer was truly diaphanous to every moment and being with him was like being in attendance at God’s own party, a continuous celebration of life and its mysteries. But mostly Mr. Tayer was so full of vital sap and juice that he seemed to flow with everything. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Mr. Tayer was the way that he would suddenly look at you. He looked at you with wonder and astonishment joined to unconditional love joined to a whimsical regarding of you as the cluttered house that hides the holy one. I felt myself primed to the depths by such seeing. I felt evolutionary forces wake up in me by such seeing, every cell and thought and potential palpably changed. I was yeasted, greened, awakened by such seeing, and the defeats and denigrations of adolescence redeemed.
I would go home and tell my mother, who was a little skeptical about my walking with an old man in the park so often, “Mother, I was with my old man again, and when I am with him, I leave my littleness behind.”
Speaking of butterflies, last week 50,000 young people packed Morelia’s José María Morelos y Pavón Stadium to welcome Pope Francis with music and dance, highlighting the famous monarch butterfly migration from Canada and the US to the state of Michoacan. Pope Francis reminded them, “You cannot live in hope or look to the future if you do not first know how to value yourselves, if you do not feel that your life, your hands, your history is worth the effort. Hope is born when you are able to experience that all is not lost, and for this to happen it is necessary to start ‘at home,’ to begin with yourself. Not everything is lost. I am not lost; I am worth something, I am worth a lot. The biggest threats to hope are those words that devalue you, that make you feel second rate. The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that you do not matter to anybody or that that you have been left aside. The biggest threat to hope is when you feel that, either being present or absent, you make no difference. This kills, this crushes us and opens the door to much suffering.”
The weather today is the same as the weather I left in Italy. It’s just that our castles here are not nearly as old. Or castle-like for that matter. Good news on the home front is that the spring garden pageant is beginning, daffodils wholehearted and eager to bloom. Butterflies can’t be far behind.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering. St. Augustine
To be reasonable. We go hungry
amid the giant granaries
this world is. We store up plenty
for when we are old and mild.
It is our strength that deprives us.
Like Keats listening to the doctor
who said the best thing for
tuberculosis was to eat only one
slice of bread and a fragment
of fish each day. Keats starved
himself to death because he yearned
so desperately to feast on Fanny Brawne.
Emerson and his wife decided to make
love sparingly in order to accumulate
his passion. We are taught to be
moderate. To live intelligently.
Jack Gilbert from The Dance Most of All. © Knopf, 2009
give me the ointment of mercy
to heal the broken-hearted this day.
May my tender mercy
give the aching souls of my patients
and those with whom I interact,
a chance to find rest in your care.