A Butterfly Is Born

The butterfly is a resilient role model that can teach us how to be soulful, determined, and courageous in times of change.

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According to the Catholic scholar Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, the chrysalis is an “image of the human being that has separated itself form the agitation, noise and anxiety of ordinary life to transform its inner state into a more perfect one.” The caterpillar-into-butterfly transformation can symbolize the change which occurs when a person goes from being an earthly minded unbeliever to a heavenly minded believer. It can also point to the ultimate spiritual transformation we undergo at death, when we leave our earthly bodies behind and receive heavenly ones. The ancient Egyptians sometimes decorated the cocoon-like sarcophagi that housed the bodies of their dead with images of butterflies to suggest this ultimately transformation.

In ancient Greece the same word—psyche—was used to signify “butterfly” and “soul.” Ancient Christian writers, meanwhile, saw the ultimate caterpillar-to-butterfly parallel in the resurrected Christ, whose body was, and was not, the suffering mortal body crucified on the cross.

What is the ultimate lesson hiding behind all these varied images? Perhaps the 16th-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila said it best in her classic spiritual instruction manual “The Interior Castle.” “The silkworm,” she wrote, "is like the soul. When it is full-grown, it starts to spin its silk and to build the house in which it is to die. Let us hasten to perform this task and spin this cocoon. Let the silkworm die--let it die, as in fact it does when it has completed the work which it was created to do.”

The silkworm Teresa talks about here is our smaller self: that part in each of us that is afraid of change of any kind, afraid to give itself over to God for even a moment. The self that bumbles and gropes along, intent on its appetites, earthbound and entirely oblivious to the larger, heavenly world above it: our inner caterpillar.

To become what it is destined to be, the caterpillar cannot change a little here or a little there. It has to transform completely. It was Teresa’s understanding of this—her willingness to sacrifice that ever-hungry, earthbound aspect of herself—that transformed her from a humble Spanish nun into the leader of a religious order and one of the great religious geniuses of all time.

But even for those of us who are not up to such heroic standards of sanctity and holiness, the miracle of the chrysalis is one we can take to heart just the same. Whether we are a great mystic, or just an ordinary person who wants God’s help in becoming better, change always means dying a little. Like the lowly caterpillar, all of us are humble and flawed. But also like the caterpillar, we are built for transformation, creatures capable of metamorphoses more wonderful and surprising than our wildest dreams. All we need is the courage to allow them.

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