Beauty on the Wing

cropped violet

“A flower that stops short at its flowering misses its purpose.  We were created for more than our own spiritual development; reproduction, not mere development, is the goal of matured being – reproduction in other lives.”     Parables of the Cross

Blue butterfly plant.* My most recent discovery and, modestly speaking, horticultural success.  Little matter that once rooted it is almost impossible to destroy.  Its true blue flowers have an uncanny resemblance to butterflies in flight – their delicate stamens arching upwards like intricate antenna.

I netted a branch with several “butterflies” aloft and placed it in a bottle green vase to study and savor.  Somewhere between branch and bottle, the seam of the bud sepal split open revealing a hint of blue within.   Suddenly I became possessed of a plan to watch the bud unfold before me.  To “catch it,” so to speak, as it was opening.  While I had seen a bud unfurl in a time-exposure nature film, I’d never seen the moment of opening in real time.  Surely this bud was ripe and ready.  And I was determined to see it happen!   (Oh, the joys of retirement!)

So I watched and watched.  And watched.  Nothing happened.  Well, it had to happen, didn’t it?  At some point in time the seams would split and the bloom would appear.  I was  more determined than ever to be witness to the moment.  I moved the vase next to the computer where I could multi-task:  write a letter; keep a sharp eye on the bud.

I had hardly turned my head to start up the computer when it happened – the grand opening – in the split second I averted my gaze.  But the show continued:  I watched as the wand-like filaments ever so gradually unfurled into a crescent-shaped arch.  Much like a midwife, I felt, watching (if not aiding) the birthing of a new life.  I carried the vase with the newborn “butterfly” with me from desk to dinner table to bedside glorying in its flawless beauty.

I was eager to check it out the next day.  Would a new bud bloom?   (Just how much time did I have?!)  Much to my disappointment, my beautiful butterfly bloom had withered and died.  Whether William Blake had his own literal butterfly experience – winged insect or flower – we may never know but his poem, “Eternity,”  captures the ephemeral nature of beauty:

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Lilias has her own “take” on the transitory life of a flower – and my lament.  The flower stage of a plant’s life is, for all its beauty, only a passing stage in the purpose of the plant.  “A flower that stops short at its flowering misses its purpose.”  She notes the high cultivation of flowers that spends its whole energy on the production of bloom at the expense of seed: “The flowers that are bent on perfecting themselves, by becoming double, end in barrenness…”   

She proceeds to the inevitable parallel in the life of the soul and a like barrenness which “comes to the soul whose interests are all concentrated upon its own spiritual well-being, heedless of the needs around.”

Clearly there is a tension here, between attending to our own personal spiritual development and an obsessive focus on ourselves that results, potentially, in a useless hybrid.  I was raised in a family – and faith culture – with a strong sense of “holiness” and striving for the perfecting of character.  This was supported and augmented with a set of standards to ensure (or at least encourage) the same.  As an adult this evolved into an internal sense of morality and a heart desire to honor God.  Toward that end, I strived to be a particular kind of person who, hopefully, would bring glory to God.  But “strive” was the operative word and, needless to say, I fell hopelessly short of my goal!

Imagine my surprise when I came across words penned by one of my favorite authors, Paul Tournier: “In this world our task is not so much to avoid mistakes as to be fruitful.”  How easy it was, in my efforts for self-improvement, to miss the point!  And what a relief to increasingly take the focus off myself as I began to form a clearer sense of  God’s design for His children:  “We were created for more than our own spiritual development; reproduction, not mere development, is the goal of matured being – reproduction in other lives.”

As to the matter of “holiness,”  Elisabeth Elliot brings liberating perspective:  “We cannot make ourselves holy.  But when we surrender ourselves to the Lord, learning day by day to treat all that comes to us with peace of soul and firm conviction that His will governs all, He will see to our growth in grace.  He will so govern the events in our lives, down to the smallest detail, as to provide for us the conditions which may make us fruitful.  It is not for our sake but for the sake of others.”  (A Path Through Suffering)

I will savor “beauty on the wing” and allow my blue butterfly blossoms – and countless other flowers that bloom and die – to be lovely reminders of an important spiritual truth:  “The true, ideal flower is the one that uses its gifts as means to an end; the brightness and sweetness are not for its own glory; they are but to attract the bees and butterflies that will fertilize and make it fruitful.  All may go when the work is done – “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

* Clerodendrum ugandense (botanical name for “blue butterfly plant”)

Painting: Travel Journal 1900

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6 Responses to Beauty on the Wing

  1. Donna Lobs says:

    Wonderful visual as I enjoy reading this….more than 12 monarchs feasting on shrubbery blossoms outside my window.This activity has been constant for about a week .The flowers are now about gone and I expect the same of the butterflies soon..Have a blessed day. Donna

    • mhrockness says:

      What a visual treat! And, no doubt, the butterflies are carrying out their mission in the continuation of life. Unrelated: Your husband wrote about the amazing “after story” of Bonnie (of “Bonnie & Clyde” fame). I couldn’t figure out how to “reply” to his blog but I wondered if that story has been written (or filmed)?!

  2. Christine Maddux says:

    Thank you, Miriam. This is timely for me today…probably would be timely for me on any given day, as I, too, am growing beyond the personal holiness goal. To God be thanks and glory and fruit!

  3. Sara says:

    Beautifully said. That phrase from Elisabeth Eliot: “to treat all that comes to us with peace of soul and firm conviction that His will governs all,” I first encountered in the morning prayers in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible; evidently one of the standard Orthodox prayers. It was like finding an old, familiar friend in an unexpected place when I came upon it here on your post. The rest of that prayer is just as much a heart-cry for His assistance throughout each hour of the day to know and to do His will (and thus to be fruitful). I have found this prayer to be increasingly meaningful in my own life as I have become more familiar with it.

    Prayer by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
    Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
    Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.
    In every hour of the day reveal your will to me.
    Bless my dealings with all who surround me.
    Teach me to treat all who come to me throughout the day with peace of soul and firm conviction that your will governs all.
    In all my words and deeds, guide my thoughts and feelings.
    In unforeseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care.
    Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering or embarrassing others.
    Help me to bear the fatigue of the coming day.
    Direct my will.
    Teach me to pray.
    Pray yourself in me.
    Amen.

  4. mhrockness says:

    Your “reply” was a gift to me! I had no idea from whence came that “line” that Elisabeth Elliot worked into her writing. I have copied out this amazing prayer – and will keep it well within sight. Thank you!

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