‘Which is the greater blessing,’ someone once asked, ‘to have the sublime unity of God to centre and save the universe? Or to have the concrete immensity of the universe by which to undergo and touch God?’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In many cultures the butterfly has been seen as the symbol of the soul. It is, in many ways, an excellent analogy, and no less so for being much used. From the earthbound caterpillar that munches its way through the garden, feeding the physical body by consuming its environment, much as we do with the emotional, intellectual and sensory input we receive, to the imperative that sets it to build the cocoon. It does not know what is coming, but it has no choice. It is a change of state that is inevitable… like death… and the small, soft body responds to the inner command, building a place in which, to all intents and purposes, it will dissolve into its component parts, becoming nothing at all like the caterpillar… yet the essence, the life force that animates those glorious wings and takes flight above the earth, is the same. What was the caterpillar becomes the butterfly… they are the same creature, but wholly different in their appearance, their abilities and their goals.
Can it feel, in some vague, instinctive way, that inner call? That desire to fuel transformation through its environment? Is the squishy little body aware at some level of what is to come? Does it glimpse a passing butterfly and yearn for wings and a reflection of that beauty? Does it recognise something akin to its own nature in the glorious creature that flutters around it? Maybe it recognises at some deeper level that this is its kin, its parent… the one who laid the egg from which, long ago, the caterpillar emerged. Or is it simply consumed by the desire and need to consume?
Why caterpillars anyway? Why not just lay eggs that become butterflies? I do not know, but I have thought about it a fair bit… my mind wanders down some odd pathways sometimes. I think it is about the fuel. The butterfly is already inherent in the caterpillar, yet the mechanics and beauty, the colour and complexity of the design takes a lot of creating. Think of trying to make a caterpillar… even from clay. It is a simple design… simply a mobile feeding tube. In terms of engineering it is quite basic… and its functions are minimal. Now, try sculpting that butterfly… and make it a working model. The time, effort and energy to do so is far greater. So I think that is why caterpillars. A neat package… a simple egg, that hatches to feed and grow itself, learning its environment, consuming it, experiencing it and carrying the programming to make the butterfly itself once it has grown enough, fed enough, matured enough….
It follows the dictates of its own nature and, by obeying the inner imperative, is transformed, in one of the most incredible moments of glory, into sheer beauty, taking flight under the summer sun.
As an analogy, I’m not sure we can beat it.
We are not so much different, I feel. Though how you interpret that depends upon your own perspective, of course. We do consume our environment, taking in all the stimuli and information in our need to grow, both in time and in understanding. And there is that odd nagging set of questions about the why of it all.
It is a touchy subject this, this debate around the nature of the world and our spiritual place and purpose within it. Or should it be, its spiritual purpose around us? Many, possibly all those amongst us who seek, have asked so many why’s and probably each of us has come up with different answers. That’s fine, and, I feel, as it should be. The relationship in which we see ourselves with however we conceive of Divinity… even if we reject the very concept… is, and should be, a personal one.
Some feel the world should be overcome… that we should be able to transcend its call, its desires, the flesh itself. Some feel no call to another level of being… they are here, now and that is all that matters. Some see the world as an expression of the Being of the One and thus see all as sacred, even our faults and flaws part of a higher purpose.
But regardless of our beliefs, or the way they shape us all, the inevitability of that moment of transformation we call death awaits us all. As we approach that inescapable leveller where king and pauper are alike, we have only our beliefs and hopes and that still, small voice that whispers within. Do we simply return the elements of our physical bodies to the earth and cease to be? Are our hopes of survival merely fears of annihilation? Are we nothing more than a body? Am ‘I’, are ‘you’ just this flesh? Is there more to being who we are than appears when we look in the mirror? Or is there within us the butterfly waiting to emerge, nourished by the experience of living, fed by what we have consumed in life, awaiting that transcendent moment of dissolution and transformation when we fly free?
Me, I’m with the butterflies.
First published August 2013