It has not been a good year for the butterflies. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I have a great love of butterflies and see them as a sign of hope. Last year, with the unusually early spring in Cleveland, butterflies were out early and in abundance. This year, however, has been an entirely different story.
Although the common white cabbage butterfly is still plentiful, other species have all but disappeared. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when, a couple of weeks ago, my camera and I saw a black fluttering amidst the lake brush that most likely was some variety of swallowtail. Slowly moving in, I received its image a number of times, with deep delight.
It was not until later, when I had the images on the larger screen of my computer that I saw it. Its broken wing. I have written of broken-winged butterflies before (see The broken wing) and have a tender spot for them in my heart.
I wrote the poem that appears with this butterfly's image many, many years ago and it has stayed with me. In fact, when I went to college I submitted it for publication in a small literary magazine we were starting. Tonight, as I contemplated re-printing it here, I found myself wondering what was happening in my life when I wrote that poem. I could no longer remember but suspected that I might find the answer in one of my old journals. I dug them out and began looking...
I had just turned 17 and was a senior in high school. My previous entry in the journal had reported that President Nixon had just initiated a massive bombing campaign in Vietnam. I ended the entry with, "Oh God...how can I live?" War and violence and suffering have always affected me deeply. I was young then and dreamed of a world where people could live in peace. I was also too young to vote then and an election was looming.
And so I wrote the poem.
my heart has become
like a butterfly
whose wings are broken -
unable to fly,
and yet, knowing no purpose
but that of flying.
A few years later, when this poem appeared in the college literary magazine, a fellow student commented positively about it. I remember making an apologetic remark of some sort, trying to explain that while it sounded depressing, I wasn't really depressed. The other girl surprised me by saying, "I don't think it is depressing. At least you know your purpose."
Could I really, at the age of 17, have "known my purpose"? Do I even know it now, 40+ years later?
As I have related before, adolescence and young adulthood had some stormy moments for me, emotionally and spiritually. During that time, I tried to sort out the meaning of life and I wondered about the existence of God. I knew that, if I were to go on living, I had to have a purpose. Did I find one - or was it given to me? I am still not sure.
Fairly early in life, however, I knew there was one thing I could live for, if nothing else: to try to relieve suffering. If I could relieve or lessen the suffering of at least one person, it would have been worth putting up with all of the seeming pointlessness of life. I did not need to change the world, as my 17 year old self had longed to do. But perhaps I could make someone else's life hurt less.
That purpose has sustained me for most of my adult life - but it has also undergone much growth and transformation. I now know that relieving suffering is no easy task. I have lived through times where I could not relieve my own suffering, much less anyone else's.
And now, as I grow older, I know that someday I will not be able to rely on my work to give me purpose. What seemed like a good, sturdy purpose when I was young has had to grow and change with me or it would not hold up. I would not hold up.
It is hard to put into words what my purpose has become. It has not stopped being what it was before - but it has become so much more. It is less about me and more about what I carry in my heart. Or perhaps I should say, Who I carry in my heart.
With Him in my heart, all is possible, even when my body and mind lose health or strength. Even in death, all will be possible...as everything becomes His and He becomes mine. Yes, even then...
And so there is hope. It is all right if you are not sure of your purpose. Listen and allow it to come forth in you. Let it grow and spread its wings. Then embrace it and, come what may, remember it always.
(Only one more day in our Week of Hope! Of course, hope will live on while we move to reflect on the other holy pauses. If you would like to share comments, words, or images on any of the holy pauses, please e-mail them to me at email@example.com. Please let me know if you would like your contribution accompanied by your name or a pseudonym.)