I like caterpillars! I like the fuzzy fur and stripes of orange and black. The way in which their bodies move up and down as they move across trail, field, or deck fascinates me. But it is their hopefulness that enthralls me most. They will transform in a dramatic way becoming what appears to be an entirely different species.
Serving as metaphor for the nature of existence, with its cycles of death and resurrection, butterflies-to-be inspire and remind me of the divine essence moving through us all. They remind me that who and what we are now is only temporary. All things change.
Existence is a continuous process of change. We exist both in this moment and in our becoming. I am wooly worm living in the now and am content with myself. I am also butterfly-to-be divinely lured in each moment to become more loving and more in-tune with the whole of creation.
Kneeling beside the caterpillar, camera at the ready, I waited for it to move. Gently touching it, despair washed over me! This tube of hope was not going to move! Immediately, I sought an answer for why the small creature was no longer a butterfly-in-becoming.
No predator had snatched its life from it. There was no apparent injury. I examined the tiny legs; the dissipated life force had ceased to propel and inhabit this creature. Why? What do I make of this creature whose existence ended before becoming that which it was destined?
A lifeless caterpillar seems more analogous to an unexpected death. It is an inexplicable event; it is the death of hope. A dead wooly worm will never become a butterfly. Yes, everything is temporary. Even our becoming will end.
Standing in the middle of the woods — woods that burnt in a recent wildfire — the words coming through my mobile phone stung me. A beloved member of the extended community in which I serve as pastor was dead. A woman I perceived as joyful, confident, and butterfly-bound ended her own life! The fire-devastated environs in which I stood reflected the harsh news. I pondered the deep pain (and desperation?) this beloved of God must have felt to have taken her own life.
After talking with her brother and sending an email with the sad news to the church community, I lifted my pack out of the ashes where I’d dropped it. Dusting it off, I embarked on my long pilgrimage back to the trailhead. Trudging through blackened trees, charred leaves, and scorched cones, I pondered shortened lives of wooly worm and human. Despair, deep sadness, shock, and sobs took their turn with me.
Each step became a prayer. The grassless meadows and hollow trunks were symbols of the evil and hardships of life. They pointed toward the emotional state that would drive a beloved child of the Divine to take her life. My pilgrimage to the trailhead was a blessing as I identified both my personal reaction and my pastoral response to the difficult news in my community.
There is a harmful stream in my faith tradition that says that suicide is a sin. While that is not a belief in my particular theology or that of my denominations (see About), it has made the grief of family members and friends of those who die at their own hand more difficult. I unequivocally reject the notion that the one I call God chooses to further punish a wounded soul with eternal damnation.
The essence of the creating energy of the universe (that which I refer to as God) is love. Love is empathy. Love knows and feels with each wooly worm, with each wildflower and stem of grass, and with each human being. In the words of process theologian Monica A. Coleman, God “knows us from the inside out” (see Life After Death).
The one divine essence, whether envisioned as energy or old man with a long white beard, knows us better than we know ourselves and desires the best for each one of us. When free will and the complexities of our interrelated existence, combine to lead a person to choose suicide, God feels with us. The Divine feels not only our emotions of dismay, shock, and grief, but the sense of hopelessness of the deceased. Taking those feelings into godself, the Divine Love nudges us to listen to one another, to wipe tears, and to act for good.
Though I reject the notion that God creates hardship to teach lessons, I do perceive the divine one using even the most traumatic life experiences for good. When faced with suicide, the sacred spirit moves within and between us calling us to care for one another as we grieve. We are encouraged to work for changes to our cultural and mental health systems that prevent people from perceiving hope in our fractured and temporary existence.
Both my spiritual tradition and the nature that surrounded me as I moved through burnt forest and meadow, teach me that not every wooly worm becomes a butterfly. Life is filled with both despair and elation. As every child is loathe to hear, life isn’t fair. But the sorrow of the now will end just as moments of euphoria end.
The good news obvious in nature and reflected in the sacred writings of multiple traditions, is that even in death there is new life. To be sure, without death new life does not exist.
The grasses burned by wildfire will return in the spring with a vibrancy that the thick, overgrown brush lacked. The trees that survive will emanate a beauty in their scars that a perfect life could never reveal. The fallen trees will provide homes for small rodents and insects. And the inexplicably deceased caterpillar I encountered on another trail, will provide food for a passing bird or decompose and become part of the soil upon which life depends.
Because we are interconnected with one another, the essence of the one who takes her own life or the one who dies at one-hundred-twenty years, remains within our diverse Gaian whole. We are forever connected with one another in the present, the past, and into the future. And, so, the wooly worm whose life ended before its incarnation as butterfly remains constituent of the living earth. Though no form lasts forever, through the Divine One we remain eternally connected to each other in the becoming realm of love that slowly unfolds outside of time.
Standing in the river plateau as it cuts a canyon through the rock, I am overcome by my own smallness. That smallness, however, does not manifest in feelings of irrelevancy or in being unimportant to the One. The smallest part of creation is of consequence. The big and little are both vital to our Gaian whole. This is evident in the tiny details in which God reveals godself most fully.