On Monarchs and metamorphosis

This summer my two eldest daughters (Miss 11 and Miss 8, I’m yet to choose them fancy semi-anonymous blogger children aliases) ran a fairly successful small business. The year before one of them had been raising monarch butterfly caterpillars on a swan plant, and when the caterpillars literally ate themselves out of house and home she had to buy another swan plant. It was not easy to find, and it was not cheap. I could tell she was scheming something when she asked, “Mum, do you think we could grow swan plants in the greenhouse?”. We talked through outlay and expenses, marketing and selling points, and their eyes grew wide as they did the math and calculated the profit they could make on each plant. When your pocket money comes in gold coins, even $40 seems like a fortune.

And so in early November I advanced them a loan for seeds and potting mix, and they got to work. Well, WE got to work; there was a fair bit of parental input at the beginning, seeing how they’re not really proficient plantswomen at this young age. There were quite a few weeks of effort invested with little return, but it soon came time to sell them, and they sold easily. Again, I had to help out a bit here, seeing how, again, they’re not on Facebook Marketplace at this young age, nor can they drive, and their bookkeeping needed some assistance. But they bartered cleaning chores for my services and we were all happy. Happy customers, happy caterpillars, happy mum at providing such a great teaching experience (yes, I’m impressed with myself too), and happy daughters when they made over $100 each.

Of course, we kept some of the swan plants for ourselves, and so we’ve watched the life cycle of egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly over and over again. The process is full of magic and wonder, but also anticipation and a surprising squeamishness. If you’ve ever watched a caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, you’ll know what I mean… it is gross. If you haven’t, you can watch it here (forgive the music).

I’m a great believer in nature as a metaphor for life in general. So many times I have gleaned some pearl of wisdom by observing the natural world. I’m not quite going to go as far as, “You’re closer to God in the garden than anywhere else on earth”–partly because I am not my husband’s grandmother (yet), and partly because there’s not usually the “two or three gathered in my name” dynamic going on in my garden… if we could hold church in my garden, that might be a different matter (and THEN I would install a garden plaque with the aforementioned saying)–but I know God speaks to me through my garden.

And so as we’ve watched these caterpillars do their thing, metamorphosing from one stage to the next, I’ve been thinking about transition and transformation. These little dudes have no idea what is going on for them, they’re just following their instincts, munching away until one day they’re overcome by the urge to find a sheltered spot, make an anchor, and hang up side down.

Waiting… waiting…. From the outside it looks like nothing is happening, but on the inside they (apparently) are turning to goop. And then wriggle, wriggle, they shed their coat of characteristic stripes and this green alien-like blob appears, which soon contracts into a beautiful jewel of chrysalis – jade coloured with gold embellishments. So pretty! But, wait folks, that ain’t it. A week and a half later that jewel starts to darken; oh, has it died? the uninitiated ask. But soon through the walls of the chrysalis you glimpse the faint outline of a Monarch’s wings. Finally the chrysalis begins to struggle and squirm and soon emerges the butterfly, wings crumpled at first but before long they’re stretched to the sun, and she flies off looking for food and a place to begin the cycle all over again.

Now I know that these insects are neither self-aware nor capable of conscious thought, but I am captivated by imagining what they might be thinking. As a caterpillar: is this all there is? Eat, eat, eat. Will I ever be anything more than this? (And god-like to him I reply: oh yes, there is so much to come!) Then waiting to form that chrysalis: I feel something changing on the inside, but I don’t know what. It’s unsettling, disturbing, is something wrong with me? (Nope, you’re just entering the next stage). And then in the chrysalis: Wow, look at me, I am beautiful! I never thought I’d become like this (oh, just you wait and see what’s coming). And as the chrysalis blackens and the butterfly grows inside: oh, this state has soured to me, who am I even more, I feel trapped here, I’ve outgrown this space (Just wait, change is coming). And then he emerges a beautiful butterfly: Oh my, what am I now? How do I even make these things work? (Go on, try them out, see what you can do, your horizons have broadened dramatically). I could hold a long conversation with these little guys!

There’s so much transition, so much change to adjust to and unknown to flow into. So many moments of anticipation, delay (or what seems like delay), and final fulfilment.

And if I was that caterpillar I would be feeling lost, frustrated, hopeful, disappointed, fearful, faith-filled. All the feelings. And without the understanding of what on earth is going on. As the outside observer, the one who possesses higher intelligence, I can see what’s going on. A lot like God with me. Too often in my stages of transition I’ve railed at the unfairness of it all, and God, ever patient, sits with me in it. Too often I’ve interpreted those feelings of unfamiliarity and dislocation as a sign that something is wrong, when really it’s a sign I’m moving forward. As a friend commented, those caterpillars squirming into their chrysalises are a lot like teenagers in puberty. I hated puberty.

But here’s the best thought: the final stage of an insect’s growth and development is called the “Imago”, it’s that last state, the end point of all this metamorphosis. Remind you of anything? The imago Dei, the image of God which we are all created in, but which we all fall short of, and the final goal in our personal metamorphosis of discipleship and formation. That imago is there in infant form in each of us. It can seem as distant from the character of Christ as the caterpillar is from the butterfly, but the process of growth and development is an ongoing work towards its full expression.

The question isn’t so much, do I measure up? Am I beautiful yet? Or even, when you’re in those transition stages — do I understand what is going on inside me? Can I see and understand what is ahead?

But instead in faith let’s ask, am I allowing the process to work itself out in me? Am I allowing the character of Christ to emerge, gradual though it may be.

Someone bigger, and wiser, and with an infinitely larger perspective, knows what’s going on, even if you don’t.

Relax into the transformation.

PS. For those of you who are you are itching to suggest “but you can feed them pumpkin can’t you?!”, and those who in reply are thinking “I’ve heard it deforms them”: I’ve heard both, and in the spirit of that BSc I once completed we are conducting a small-scale non-randomised, non-controlled trial (n=2). I’m not expecting statistically significant results. We have two caterpillars (Peter and Peter Peter) that feasted on pumpkin for a while that are currently in their chrysalises. Preliminary results are that the chrysalises are smaller, the caterpillars were a slightly different colour (blacker and more velvety), and their poop was orange. Further results to come.

UPDATE: Peter (or is it Peter Peter?) hatched from his chrysalis last night and he does not look well. The wings are smaller, he can’t fly, he’s not going to make it.

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