Caterpillar Saints

My favorite among apocryphal writings – that is, the collection of writings that some people consider to be divinely inspired, but others do not – my favorite among these apocryphal writings, The New Yorker magazine, recently ran a marvelous cartoon that depicts a caterpillar having a conversation with a butterfly.  The butterfly’s wings are unfurled, and even in the black-and-white format of the magazine, you can tell that those wings are drenched with color.  The caterpillar, wrinkled, scrunchy, lumpy, and inelegant in comparison to the lovely butterfly, and flightless, of course, is looking up at the butterfly.  The butterfly is speaking, and says to the caterpillar, in what I can only assume to be a matter-of-fact tone, “The pay is actually about the same.”

Is there disappointment in this conversation?  Hard to say which of the two might be the more disappointed by the realization that the pay is about the same.  Is it the caterpillar, who sees before him his transformed destiny of beauty and flight, only to learn that his wages won’t go up?  Or is it the butterfly who has discovered that in her self-actualization of metamorphosis into something as beautiful as a butterfly, her paycheck had hardly increased?

Now, you send enough butterflies to business school and interesting things could happen.  For one thing, you might see the pay of some butterflies rise high above the pay of others.  CEO butterflies need to be well compensated, after all.  You’ve got to reward your talent.  For another thing, the MBA butterflies might write a report indicating how expensive it is to produce such colorful wings: the pigments are pricey, and the fabric for the wings, too.  And there is a lot of serious engineering that goes into each butterfly.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more efficient if caterpillars – most of them anyway – just remained caterpillars.  Metamorphosis is costly, time consuming, and complex – it need not be for everyone!

Plus, you send enough butterflies to business school and soon you are going to have cable TV: Caterpillar Cable.  Cable TV keeps the caterpillars amused at a cost (to the caterpillars) of only about a hundred bucks a month.  But what with all the channels, and now Netflix and Hulu and a reasonably fast WiFi connection too, the caterpillars are pretty distracted by entertainers – butterflies all – for whom the pay is not about the same at all, it is quite elevated, in fact.  (That’s what the market has determined; so who are the caterpillars to wonder about that?  But I digress.)  Soon enough, many of the caterpillars forget that once upon a time all caterpillars were meant to become butterflies.  Content with the content dished out in flat-screen, HD, 24-hour, on-demand entertainment, who’s going to bother with the trouble of becoming a butterfly?

True fact: last year the worldwide monarch butterfly population was down to only about 35 million, from what had once been an estimated population of one billion.[i]  Bad weather and a depleted supply of milkweed are cited as the causes.  But I have to wonder if it isn’t because the caterpillars are all choosing to stay home and watch cable, entertaining themselves out of a promise of beauty, purpose, and direction.  Who knows?

Here we are on All Saints Day.  And if you’ll allow me to put it this way, it’s the day we often think of as an opportunity for us caterpillars to give thanks to God for all the butterflies.  But do I need to say anything else, before I ask you if you see anything wrong with this picture?

I suppose caterpillar churches might be adorned with statues of butterflies.  But then you’d have to ask yourself: don’t they know what they are looking at when they glance up at those statues?

There is this tension in the Christian tradition between the idea that the saints are, on the one hand, those whose lives have been exceptional examples of faith to which we could never aspire, and, on the other hand, that the saints are ordinary people like you and me, and that we are, all of us, called to be saints.  But even this tension is lost if the caterpillars only ever stay home and watch Netflix: if we forget to even dream about becoming butterflies, about becoming saints.

Every schoolchild knows that a caterpillar spins itself a silken cocoon as it begins the process of metamorphosis – the transformation that will result in its emergence from the cocoon as a beautiful, winged butterfly.  You may not know that inside that cocoon, the caterpillar is dissolving its own tissue into a sort of soupy substance, from which its butterfly parts are formed.  And within that soupy substance are to be found “certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs.”  And from these imaginal discs are formed all the individual parts of a butterfly: legs, eyes, antennae, and, of course, its wings.[ii]  Imaginal discs – I think this is a wonderful term!

Every caterpillar is capable of this process - spinning, its silken cocoon and dissolving its old self…  except for the imaginal discs that begin the assembly of the newly transformed self into something the caterpillar may have forgotten she was always meant to become!

And if we have relegated the saints only to the realms of statuary, icon, and relic, then we are in danger of forgetting that every one of us is capable, too, of becoming something we may have forgotten we were always meant to become.  And so, on All Saints Day, aware of the tension that the saints are exemplary and unusual, but that, nevertheless, as the old hymn says, “I mean to be one too,” we gather not only to sing about the butterflies, so to speak, but also to look for our own imaginal discs in the soupy substance of the gathered church.  And the imaginal discs (whatever they are) hold the image of what we might become (like the statues in this place), and they also stir up our imaginations, by the power of the Spirit, to remember what it is we might become!

But have you forgotten, oh caterpillars, that God made you to be saints, to be butterflies?

Have you forgotten that metamorphosis is yours to claim, and that it started when you were baptized?

Have you become content with a wrinkled, scrunchy, lumpy, and inelegant life?  Have you given up hoping to fly, and acquiesced to a flightless life, as if wings are not yours to claim, and the colors are too costly for you to hope for?

Have you lost track of your imaginal discs?

So much of the world has been convinced that it is OK if the butterfly population is decimated; sad, but OK.  Because so much of the world has lost interest in ever becoming a saint, and is busy watching Netflix anyway.

But we hear St. John’s mystical accounting of the divine intention, as the one seated on the throne declares, “See I am making all things new!”

I am making all things new!

Are not we among the things that God makes new?  Has he not given us imaginal discs of untold wonder?

By God’s grace, part of life in the church is a kind of conversation with the saints, who stand before us, wings unfurled in all their glorious color.  And if on All Saints Day we hear them speaking to us, it might be that they are telling is that “the pay is actually about the same.”  But this is commentary more on who we are than on who they have become.  Because they know that our calling to sainthood is already written out in the imaginal discs that God has planted in us all.  They know that what we shall be is yet to be revealed, even when we doubt that there is anything left for us to become. 

The witness of the saints – ordinary and extraordinary, all – is to testify to what we are, all of us, called to become, both in this life and the next.  We are called to a transformed life of hope – metamorphosis - that emerges out of the wrinkled, scrunchy, inelegant lives we sometimes find ourselves living, flightless, day by day.

Or, if The New Yorker is subject to the criticism that its words or its drawings may not amount, per se, to the status of holy writ, then it might be because the cartoon gets this crucial bit wrong: that the pay is actually not about the same.  And if the promise of winged flight or heavenly reward ignites the imaginal discs in us, then so be it!  Oh, for the wings of a butterfly!

Come to think of it, the butterfly who is bringing third-quarter wage reports to an acquaintance caterpillar is probably one of the ones who went to business school, and perhaps we should consider his testimony with skepticism.

Let us, rather, reassure one another, my fellow caterpillars, that God made us to be more than we at first appear to be! 

God made caterpillars – every single one of them – to be changed into butterflies!

God gave us the saints, to show us that we might be saints too!

God made you what you are, not so that you could be wrinkled, scrunchy, inelegant, and flightless; God made you precisely the way you are – complete with imaginal discs – so that you might be transformed into someone more beautiful, more colorful, and less earthbound than you suspect you are.

There are a lot of us caterpillars out here in the world.  Pray, let us not forget what God made us to be, pray that he will

give us the wings of faith

to rise and see the saints,

and ask them whence their victory came,

and follow their incarnate God,

and see how great their joys,

how bright their glories be![iii]

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

All Saints Day 2015

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[i] Field & Stream (, Feb 3, 2014, Phil Bourjaily, “Weather and Milkweed Shortage Lead to Monarch Butterfly Declines”

[ii] Scientific American (, Aug 10, 2012, Ferris Jabr, “How Does a Caterpillar Turn Into a Butterfly?”

[iii] Paraphrasing Isaac Watts, “Give us the wings of faith”

Posted on November 2, 2015 .