Of Butterflies and Caterpillars

Cosmos. It’s the cheery flower that Janet loves but could never grow. It’s been a running joke in our home for 20 years. Each Spring, she’d muster her courage and buy it again, plant it next to all the other flowers and shrubs that were healthy and growing, and the cosmos would shrivel and die. “She loves to kill cosmos”, I’d joke, rather unkindly.

Though Janet had finally given up even trying several years ago, I stumbled upon a cheap sale on cosmos and bought her some as a surprise to pot on our patio. She was delighted and created a big pot for a very conspicuous spot near the back door. I promised I wouldn’t mock her but instead be her cheerleader. And amazingly, the pot has been showing off lovely flowers for months now. Janet has been very proud of herself, and we are ready to announce that the curse has been broken!

Yet today, mid-season, the plant suddenly looks like it hangs between life and death. The leaves are shriveled, half the flowers are gone or looking terribly arthritic, and there are limp, brown patches.

And a plump green caterpillar is lounging nearby.

In the past, Janet would feel robbed by these pillaging creatures. We’d dutifully bring out the caterpillar spray and douse the plant with a vengeance.

But last year we experienced a butterfly aviary. Thousands of multi-colored butterflies of numerous exotic designs flitted about, landing on us, showing off and otherwise fascinating everyone there. Janet was filled with wonder, and the entire scene was a delight to behold.

The butterflies often rested on plants as well, plants which the docent told us are favorite foods for caterpillars.

We looked at each other. All these caterpillars we’d killed to protect lovely flowers meant we were snuffing out the opportunity to have beautiful butterflies on our patio. So this year, our Million Bells doesn’t look as nice, but we both feel good about that, and the caterpillar spray stays in the garage.

So today, looking at the plump green caterpillar and then at her beloved, wilting cosmos, Janet said, “Well, if it turns out that cosmos is a favorite food of butterflies, we’ll have to move the plant off into the corner for them to eat.”

Did you catch it—“favorite food of butterflies”? If you get a caterpillar on your arm, the tendency is to quickly brush it off, with a bit of a start. But when a butterfly lands on you, it’s a fascination and a blessing.

Janet’s comment blessed me… not only that she was willing to even abandon her decades-long dream to successfully grow and enjoy cosmos in exchange for some greater good, but also that she was able to see into the future, to see the potential of these green things that eat our flowers and to instead call them by what they will become. There were no butterflies on our plants, yet Janet “saw” future butterflies in their rather disgusting precedents.

How often do I only see what’s presently in front of me? The street urchin, the dilapidated housing, the impoverished community. I often see bellies in the dirt instead of future beauties in the heavens.

My mind jumped to the before-and-after photos in the paperback edition of Rich Stearns “The Hole in Our Gospel”, which I thumbed through last evening. In the first photo, Rich kneels next to a little girl with brown skin, dressed in brown rags. Four years later, Rich is shown visiting her again, this time a proud student in her bright school uniform. What a privilege it is to have an experience like Rich had there.

Yet how much better to be able to “see” it without photos, to picture the potential in the mind’s eye, as Janet did. To have her eyes fixed on the caterpillar and yet her mind, her imagination, fixed on a butterfly. To recognize that “better nature” and respond to it, not to the “presenting symptom”.

Jesus told him [Thomas], “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” (John 20:29)

I guess believing without seeing is always an act of faith… and, according to Jesus, a cause of blessing.


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