It's a Bug's Life
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that...”
- Maya Angelou
A caterpillar’s final act, emerging as a beautiful butterfly, is a thing of wonder, as well as a commonly used metaphor for what Paul says about being in Christ: “The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 MSG) Butterflies are, deservedly, the poster insects for spiritual transformation.
As Maya Angelou pointed out, though, adult butterflies change more than once to get to the part folks are typically most interested in. Take monarchs, for instance. From the time the larva first hatches from the egg, it goes through five instars before it finally becomes a pupa (chrysalis), where it can finish up its maturation into an adult.
Instars are phases of change between molts, where the caterpillar sheds the exoskeleton it has outgrown and continues its development. It’s not just butterflies that do this – instars are part of growing up for any insect.
While I am nerdy enough that I might have just randomly started thinking about instars in the course of a normal day, I actually had a little prompting recently to be thinking about them. I began a new online class, and the first week’s daily lessons centered around using lectio divina and reflecting on the same scripture every day, seeing what stood out, looking for ways our experience of the scripture may be deepening as the week went on.
The scripture as it was presented in class was Isaiah 48:6-7:
“…Now I am revealing new things to you, things hidden and unknown to you created just now, this very moment. Of these things you have heard nothing until now. So that you cannot say, Oh yes, I knew this.”
Going through the exercises associated with this scripture each day, a pattern emerged. It’s one I’ve been giving a lot of thought to anyway, because in my normal, day-to-day walking-around life, I have become more and more aware of the thoughts associated with this pattern as I age. I had never really thought about it in terms of the way I hear and process scripture or other types of input in my spiritual life, though. (As I write this, I realize I’m separating my life into secular and sacred. This is something else that has been on my mind and fodder for another post!)
The pattern often starts with a gut reaction. In nature, the monarch’s first instar begins when the larva hatches and instinctively gets about the business of self-preservation, munching away on leaves. On Monday, in my first instar with the Isaiah passage, the words that stood out to me were “new things.” It felt like a relevant, timely message; I just so happen to be in the market for something new in my life as I consider some necessary transitions in my job.
By Wednesday, the words standing out were “revealing” and “created just now, this very moment.” My instinctual reaction was anticipation, even excitement at the idea of something new. It actually went beyond my earlier take on “new things” - God was revealing something newly created!
But this was also the point in my pattern at which I really began moving from my gut reactions to analysis, so my excitement was somewhat short-lived. There it was, that nagging word “revealing.”
On the surface, “revealing” seemed like such a good thing, but my mind can be skeptical when I get excited about something unknown. Remember that part at the end of the passage about not being able to say, "I knew this," it chimed in. Doesn't that make you uncomfortable?
My mind is not generally quick to trust an instinctual reaction. In fact, one of its favorite hobbies is to rummage through its old files to see what past experience has to offer. In this case, my mind pulled out a pretty hefty list of ways God has been working in my life, especially in recent years. The bottom line of all this experience looked great, but my mind left an important footnote: “God can be pretty slow.”
From this point, analyzing became whining. Where are my answers? What’s the point of something slowly unfolding? Wouldn’t it make more sense if I could start moving on this now instead of later? As I contemplated the passage further, the underlying message I got from Spirit was “patience.” This could have been a comfort, but it felt like fuel on the fire of my grumpiness.
Thursday, a new word from the scripture caught my attention: “hidden.” During the class practice, which focused on a visual response to the passage, I saw myself standing on the edge of a forest. The word was a golden light. I couldn’t see the letters, but the word was there shining through the trees.
The word itself brought memories of Easter as a child, when my parents would make and hide our baskets with “name eggs” lovingly personalized for each of us. The whole day I continued to reflect on the symbolism associated with eggs, and the idea that there might be something with my name on it that God meant for me! Something was changing and growing in me related to this scripture. Maybe I was ready to shed some of my ego’s response to this passage and enter my second “instar!”
Friday’s activity ended the week with some additional insights. One was that the forest I had visualized earlier (the one blocking much of my view of this luminous mystery) might be one of my own making. Another was that even when I don’t know what God has for me, paying attention still affords glimpses of Spirit at work in my life, shining through that forest. This allowed me to end the weak in a much more peaceful place.
Since I don’t know where these reflections are leading, it’s impossible to know how many more spiritual instars it could take before I reach maturation around what I’m being invited to learn from this scripture (if ever!) In the insect world the length of instars, and sometimes even their number, can vary depending on environmental conditions.
Even in good conditions, some stages may be longer than others. The Hercules beetle, for instance, has three instars. The first two last around 50 days each, but the third lasts well over a year. Sometimes growing up just takes time.
I think this metaphor of moving through instars relates to my responses in all sorts of situations. It’s not just about a destination or even the journey as a whole, but about the little invitations to openness and expansion that come up every day in things as varied as devotions, relationships, and work. My pattern is pretty consistent when I encounter something new or challenging, even if the ego stage sometimes looks different. Whining and grumping might be replaced by judgement, embarrassment, anger, fear, blame, etc., but there are always opportunities to keep chewing on something until I grow into a new understanding.
There are times when I know I get stuck in the first instar. When I am unable to shed enough ego, that particular growth opportunity may stall or die away. (Thankfully, God is generous with second chances.) When I am open to - and feed - deepening and growth, though, just as with a caterpillar, something beautiful always eventually emerges.
Do you see patterns in your own responses to scripture or other forms of invitation God might offer in your daily life? What might these patterns reveal about what spiritual “instars” look like for you? Feel free to comment below, or share your experiences with me via email!