“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