Up close, butterflies look like monsters. We think of them as these pretty, airy little things that flutter by and never really look beyond the shimmery wings. But we have these crazy ideas about things like rainbows and angels and butterflies. We take out anything that we think might be the least big negative and leave only the happy bits. Somehow, we think they are prettier that way. Let’s put them all over children’s walls and nurseries. Let’s use them as great symbols of happiness and sweetness, gutted of any dark bits and saccharined, on stickers and greeting cards. We use them as we would pretty crayon colored cardboard cut outs, just the veneer of meaning, the image skinned off the top of the whole thing and stretched tight and distorted. Truth is, angels are not fat little babies, rainbows are bows of war in the sky, and butterflies are monsters. When we keep only the pretty parts and toss out the less than pretty truths that exist side by side, we miss out on some really important stuff. And we miss out on what makes the thing beautiful. It is disappointing to me when we take something that, in its fullness, is meaningful and quite beautiful and in an attempt to make it rated G for Good, we eliminate things that are hard to swallow but are what make it important.
I remember making butterflies in kindergarten by gluing different kinds of beans to an outline of wings on a thin piece of wood. The body was a mere black oval with thick antenna curling off the top, while the broad, swallow-tail wings were filled with speckled, red, yellow and brown beans, black beans that looked almost blue, tiny green beans that I suspect were peas. All coated in an iridescent sparkling layer of that kindergarten art staple: glitter! The teacher did not want us to put any glitter or peas or beans or anything on the body. ‘It’s just all black,’ she said, running her finger down the shiny black paint in the little alley between bean-filled wings to remove any stray decoration. A little void of neutrality between piles of glittered life potential.
We all know the metamorphosis from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Countless times I’ve heard… and ok, I’ll admit that I’ve done this too….. pastors use this metamorphosis to describe a lot of things in the life of faith. It looks like it’s dead but Poof! Surprise! It was just a dead looking cocoon! And now it’s a beautiful butterfly!
And that’s great! But I have yet to hear anyone using that analogy to mention the fact that the caterpillar is utterly liquified in the process. The little worm like insects spin those tiny wrapping silks into their soft grave-clothes and liquefy themselves inside. It sounds terrifying; monstrous. I always wonder if it hurts. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. And maybe insects don’t feel pain, at least not in the way that we do. But once you look at it, that the whole metamorphosis thing seems, well, violent. I can’t think of another word for it, really. Violent. Then, it is reborn out of those silk grave wrappings as something entirely different. Altogether different. Something so pretty.
No, not pretty. You see, I think that’s just it. Butterflies are not pretty. The wings are pretty but butterflies are beautiful. And you can’t really see how beautiful they are unless you look at those monstrous bodies. That’s what real beauty is. That is where we find the beautiful, not separate from the monstrous things that are difficult to look at, but all together and bound up inextricably. Those bodies look ancient and almost reptilian. Alien and bizarre with incredibly long legs, impossibly large eyes, strangely shaped bodies that are certainly not a simple black oval lying benignly between two wings. Antenni that extend far out, sensing the world around it and do not, in any sort of kindergarten cutesy sort of way, curl!
They are vestiges of primeval worlds, miniaturized. And here, not at all by accident, on the sides of this bizarre body, extend pure works of art. Art that flies. Wings that only really matter because they lift up this strange little body and yet are in many cases truly breathtaking. The butterfly is of a single piece, monstrous body and wings of every color, together as one thing and only together do they fly. Only together are they beautiful.