July through September is the prime time to discover moth and butterfly larvae, their pupae, and finally the metamorphosed adults doing exactly what they are called to do for the short time they are on this earth…perhaps teaching us about intention, rest, and transformation as they do. It is a short life, amazingly simple and complex, as all true, beautiful and noble things are. Their purpose is simple…to mate and produce offspring. But the outworking of that purpose is full of complex choices, drastic changes, dangers, preparations, and periods of transforming rest.
The inspiring life history of a butterfly begins as an egg, which the female deposits on the leaf or branch of a specific host plant. The female will scratch the surface of various leaves, picking up through chemical cues whether it is the right plant that will feed her emerging larva (caterpillars). Many butterflies have only one native host plant they can survive on, such as the Monarch with their dependence on plants in the milkweed family. No milkweed. No Monarchs.
After the caterpillar forms inside the egg, it emerges to go through several stages of growth, called instars. During this time, the caterpillar consumes huge amounts of host plant vegetation, all the while in daily danger of being snatched by birds, or lizards, or eliminated by pesticides, field mowing or burning of vegetation. All this feeding is necessary in preparation for the pupae or chrysalis transformation, and also because many butterflies have no mouthparts for eating, so they must rely on the reserves stored up from their caterpillar-stage consumption.
After a few weeks of feeding, the larva attaches itself on or near its host plant and forms a pupa or covering around it. What comes next may then be one of the most miraculous and glorious events in nature. As the caterpillar rests inside, it dissolves and is completely “re-mastered” at the cellular level into something that now has delicately scaled wings, sensing antennae, a different color and shape entirely, and a complete reproductive system with which to do it all over again…immediately. Once the metamorphosis is complete, the butterfly is intent on finding a mate on the pheromone-laden wind, laying eggs, re-fueling on the nectar plants available (hopefully), and dodging all birds, amphibians, and speeding cars on the road.
We have only scratched the surface of the innumerable intricacies involved in this fascinating, but brief, life of the butterfly. But in its essence, it gives us much to meditate on as we ponder our own life choices (are they true, prayerful, with lasting consequences?), our own times of rest and solitude (are they regular and frequent), and our own spiritual formation (is it intentional, relational and joyful?)
I’ll use the ecological term to say that finding your niche (and you may have more than one purpose and place in the seasons of life) takes the disciplines of “listening to your life,” as Fredrick Beuchner says, and listening to God, as Jesus says. I think Mary, of Mary and Martha fame, is someone who got this concept and found herself exactly where she was supposed to be.
Martha, having become overwhelmed with her domestic role of preparations turns to Jesus and, in amplified paraphrasing, says:
…that my sister left me alone to do all the serving?
…that things are not running smoothly?
…that I am trying to do a good thing here – and it’s not working out the way I’d planned?
…that I am fulfilling my role as a woman and my insensitive sister isn’t?
…that I am not even on anyone’s radar screen here?
Mary, on the other hand…
…ignored the imposed cultural system
…knew her time with Jesus, listening to and learning the words of life, was short.
…wasn’t bothered by the tyranny of urgent things, like domestic chores or eating.
…was focused – not distracted by all the distractions (you know what they are).
…intentionally chose that which would benefit her most and for the longest time. – listening to God with a restful spirit, hopeful “that her change would come” in time.
She got it right, and Jesus recognized her willingness to be and act differently for the sake of truth. For the sake of her own soul. For the sake of worship. Mary’s life was a metamorphosis - into a woman of love and service to humanity through the ages - because of the choices she made.
She found her niche...and it was at Jesus’ feet.
I saw a small illustration of this idea of "purpose and place" when I attended the first annual Appalachian Butterfly Conference recently down at Shawnee State Park, sponsored by the Shawnee Nature Club. Presently, this is a bunch of older folks who, back in the 1960’s, formed an informal group to hike together, learn together, and support conservation efforts in the region. I’m told the founder at some point perceived a need and desire among friends and decided to meet it. I’m imagining he was a leader with teaching tendencies to some degree and put all those gifts and talents out there into action, which obviously accomplished a lasting effort. He probably didn’t even think about it too much, nothing too formal and organized, he just let the need and passion carry him along. In fact just recently, some 40-plus years later, they finally applied for a non-profit status as an organization!
But I was intrigued, talking with these 60- and 70-year old nature-lovers, watching them scurry about like butterflies themselves with final preparations before the conference began. They had boundless energy, scribbling hand-written signs in magic marker, using tape and stickers to hold everything together, and sniping at one another one minute, laughing together the next. When I tried to sign up for their mailing list, they handed me a pen and pointed to one of the tablets provided by the lodge to write on. They wanted my address…and my email address...they guessed... if I wanted to give it. When I asked if they had a website, one woman laughed and said, no, she barely knows how to use the cell phone her kids gave her.What has held this group together for so long?
My head began swimming, thinking about all the rotary phone calls made back and forth trying to plan this event for 60 attendees, hike leaders, out-of-town speakers, etc. No mass emails with all the pertinent and timely information. No computer-generated anything. Yet, they pulled it off. And all I kept thinking about was that they were just simply true to the mission and doing what they loved. And that the founder must have created a vision out of the things he loved, and taken a few small steps in the beginning to fill the niche. And that forty years later they are still out there on the trails, educating the curious, involved in conservation, and meeting every third Tuesday of the month at a retirement home!
So the example begs a few more questions : Are you doing what you love and true to a mission that God has placed in your heart? Are you pursuing transformation? Are you being still enough to hear the Voice that grants wisdom, gives purpose, and leads into loving service.
I hope so, because when you do, the whole world is changed.