Shedding (Lessons from the Life of a Butterfly Part I)

One of the odd parts of our life is the amount that our family has to fly.  Every three months, we have to leave the country we are in to renew our visas.  Then, of course, there are other reasons like work commitments, holidays and birthing babies that add to the tally.  I realized that I am not your typical Canadian mom this summer when the thought of a 7-hour road trip freaked me out while I didn’t worry about a full day of airports and flying internationally with two children, one of whom was 7 weeks old.  You’d think it should be the other way around.

My older son, Lucas, in his 4 short years has flown 54 times.  As of our return here, that’s an average of 1 flight every 27 days.  Let’s just say the flight crew greets him by name now.

I was reminded of one of these trips as I taught last week at a women’s retreat on the spiritual parallels between our lives and the process of metamorphosis.

On that particular trip to Costa Rica, we had the privilege of taking a day trip to La Paz, the Peace Gardens.  It is a beautiful location with waterfalls and various wildlife preservation and educational stops.

Lucas was anxious to visit the aviary to see if a toucan would come and land on his arm.  They did not disappoint.  Next we went to the butterfly room.  We giggled with the tickle of wings and legs on our fingers and faces.  In the pictures, we carry a careful quiet in our expressions as we study the smally spread wings or our faces suddenly unfold into brightly spotted laughter.

We stood in front of a screen watching a time-lapse video of a caterpillar undergoing metamorphosis.  Again and again and again Lucas and I watched until I couldn’t hold him up to the screen anymore.

What I hadn’t realized was that the chrysalis wasn’t woven from without; it was emerging from within.  The caterpillar does not enter the chrysalis; it must become one by shedding its old form.  Caterpillars undergo a shedding or molting of their skin at various points during their pupa phase.  This occurs between 4 to 6 times in their life.  In order for them to complete their final transformation, however, they must shed all their skin once again to reveal the new skin that forms the chrysalis.  So over and over again we watched the caterpillar wriggle and twist and writhe away until its head finally fell off.

It was so much tamer to believe they simply spun a cocoon around themselves.

All of this difficult molting is to get to the place where the real transformation may occur.  Once this new skin is revealed with the caterpillar hanging inverted, firmly attached by a silk pad, the caterpillar enters a quiescent phase, an inactivity or dormancy.  Here, not only the skin has to be changed but the actual body of the caterpillar is broken down and a new type of cell gradually forms the adult butterfly’s body.  The chrysalis is able to breathe through a small hole called a spiracle, supplying oxygen to facilitate the massive changes it is undergoing in the still and quiet suspension.

The word chrysalis comes from the Greek word khrusalles meaning gold.  The term refers to a metallic sheen that some species take on during this developmental stage.

I like to think of growth as a gradual linear trajectory.  I want it to be unidirectional, progressive.  Every day, a little deeper, a little more mature, a little wiser with more patience.  Today I carry his image in me more deeply than I did yesterday.

How clean and clinical and safely I long to grow.  And here I am with another metaphor of just how much breaking is required.  I need to shake off this old skin that squeezes me in.  I thought this is who I am but today it constricts, constrains.  So I wriggle out and find new layers.  And just when I think I am fitting this skin, used to the size and shape of it, I outgrow it.  And I shed and shed it again.  What work it is to twist away from our boundaries, from our external identities to leave behind our legs, our faces and have Him redefine us, deeper, deeper.

Interestingly enough, in Spanish the word for shedding is the same word used in Hebrews 12:2 where it says we should throw off everything that hinders and entangles us so we can run freely after Jesus.

So we do this shedding work, this throwing off of our old selves to be made new, to be made like Him.

And from somewhere deep inside us, He wraps us in a silence that immobilizes us, a silence beyond movement.  Before, we could at least twist and flail, sometimes with Him, sometimes against Him, but in this place we are very still.  Mostly because we must be.  We have nowhere to go.  All we do is hang on, world upside down, breathing slowly through a very small hole.  And, when we’ve surrendered all this identity that we know how to, He begins to break us down, not just to strip away these external layers but to change our very composition.  Because the point isn’t just giving us wings.  He could stick those on easily enough.  He wants a complete transformation.

So if you find yourself silently suspended in a tight, dark place as I did standing in front of that screen in the butterfly garden, take heart.  He will break the right things in you.  He will make you into something new, something with wings.  And just maybe, while you’re waiting, you’ll catch a glimpse of that golden sheen.