Photo by Mark Nenadov (Mourning Cloak butterfly) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We had a warm spell last week, and I (of course) went for a run. I ran on a trail in the woods, and when I saw something fluttering past my eye, I did a double take. I thought it was a butterfly. In February. I stopped to observe more closely. It was a butterfly – a mourning cloak butterfly! The mourning cloak butterfly spends the winter as an adult (most butterflies overwinter as caterpillars or pupae). It can fold itself into crevices in tree bark and will sometimes emerge on warm winter days to bask in the thin sunshine. When cold weather returns, the butterflies will return to their bark shelter, sip on tree sap, and dream of spring.
Seeing this butterfly reminded me of Annie Dillard’s story about a moth in her book Holy the Firm. Now, this is a book that I have read many times. Each time I read it, I learn something new. It is slim, only 76 pages, but powerful. Read it at your peril. In Ms. Dillard’s story, she recounts camping alone in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and reading by candlelight. Moths kept flying into the candle, attracted to the light of the flame. One moth in particular flew into the fire, dipped her abdomen in the hot wax, and became stuck there. Her head, wings and legs were gone in an instant, immolated in the flame. The only thing left of her was the shell of her abdomen, which was jammed into the hot wax upright, like a second wick. Amazingly, the hot wax continued to rise in the empty shell, and a second flame formed where the moth’s head once was. The candle burned like this, with two flames, for two hours.
In this book, Ms. Dillard writes about praying to learn the ways of the Lord. She explores the question “Why does God allow innocents to suffer?” She ponders time and eternity and their relation to God. As I said, the book is only 76 pages long. Each word is precious. What is the significance of the moth story? Readers of the book are not explicitly told. We are left to wonder, and arrive at our own conclusions. I, of course, have some thoughts.
Many religions and philosophies advocate the practice of emptying oneself. We may think of Buddhism and meditation when we think about “emptying” one’s mind, but Christianity also has a contemplative tradition. The early Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus advocated finding a deep calm through meditation and prayer in a mind emptied of distracting thoughts. Evagrius also, interestingly, denoted the eight patterns of destructive thought, which were later refined into the Seven Deadly Sins. How did eight become seven? Sorrow was removed from the list. (The other seven are envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.)
The medieval friar Meister Eckhart taught that emptying oneself of the human ego can lead to God. This means ridding yourself of all selfish, self-centered, self-referencing thought, even fear. Yes, fear ultimately distances us from God; it is an emotion that comes from our sense of self-importance.
Why is it important to empty oneself? As long as we are full of our jumbled, self-absorbed thoughts, we are distanced from God. When we are caught up in our own petty problems and affinities, we cannot offer humble compassion to others, as St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Philippians that Christ did when he “emptied himself”, becoming a servant. Christ, in this case, was showing us how to live. It is not only Christ that can empty himself to allow God’s light to shine through. Each one of us can. There is no one else but us. Only through God can we empty ourselves. This is the allegory of the moth. The moth was consumed in holy flame to become hollow. Only by becoming empty was there room for God’s light to shine through her.
So. How can I empty myself? What can I get rid of? Can I let go of my fear and anxiety, knowing that they are really just selfish expressions of my ego? Can I get rid of blame? Sorrow? Can I cultivate humility? Can I stop trying to control God? Can I love him wherever He shows up? How can I allow God’s light to shine through me? These are the questions that I should be asking myself.
Here is a prayer by Thomas Merton, a 20th century Christian theologian and philosopher who espoused the concepts of mindfulness and emptiness in order to become closer to God. I love this prayer, because Merton, an esteemed thinker, shows deep humility in its wording. We have nothing but faith. And truth. And blessed little of those.