Just last week I was watering my indoor plants and inspecting a late summer acquisition from the bargain rack of my local nursery. I can’t resist rescuing these orphans and trying my hand at coaxing them back to life. “This one's doing pretty well,” I noted, spying a few new green leaves. “But what is this bump on the leaf?” I inspected the leaf more closely and found that it was a butterfly chrysalis. After scouring butterfly books, I discovered that it was the chrysalis of the Cabbage White, a rather mundane denizen of agricultural fields and also of my garden. It is even considered a pest since its caterpillar eats cabbage, broccoli and related crops.
The vision of this beautifully crafted space for incredible transformation intrigued me. How did it get here? Why on this plant? Why would the Creator take such exquisite care to make this small green case for what some would consider a nuisance? These questions led me to wonder about the many ways that God makes waiting palpable, possible and even beautiful in the natural world. The edge of winter, when the landscape—at least in my corner of the world—still seems devoid of life and color yet contains buds and possibility for all the new growth of spring. The rhythm of transition between seasons can give us a natural context to understand how to wait for those things in our lives that are not yet seen or perhaps even imagined.
At times our spiritual life can have the same quality of waiting and dormancy. There are periods of dryness, complacency or stillness. We can use the lessons from the natural world to learn how to be in what can be the difficult liminal space of waiting, the threshold between what came before and what is coming next. Can I slow down to notice all the possibility? The threshold time asks of me patience and presence to the possible, rejoicing in the “not yet”—those parts of my deepest self that have not yet been brought to my awareness. My own spiritual practices in the dormant periods are quieter and more contemplative. They may include journaling, making a retreat, taking long walks in the leafless woods, forming a labyrinth of fresh snow in my backyard. Many of these practices can engender a quiet and patient anticipation of what is next in store for my soul.
Henri Nouwen gives us great insight into the nature of waiting in his book The Spirituality of Waiting. Nouwen invokes the stories of Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna to illustrate the sacred discipline of being patient. These figures are all waiting for the coming of the Christ into the world. We may think that their vigils were passive, yet Nouwen tells us:
There is none of this passivity in Scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person. The word ‘patience’ means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.
We find no passivity in nature either. Although we think of a caterpillar as “sleeping” in its chrysalis, in actuality, transformation is occurring. The essential cells and DNA are first breaking down and then being rearranged into a completely different structure. The insect goes from a creature that crawls on the earth or on the leaves of plants to something of winged beauty that can take flight and astound the observer with its luminous colors. But to the casual observer this is not apparent.
What is the lesson that both Nouwen and nature give us about waiting? We are to stay present in this moment even though it seems as if nothing is happening. We are to stay actively engaged in what God is teaching us and surrender to the quiet work of dormancy, knowing that it is far from a waste of time. Simeon in Luke’s Gospel knew this. The gospel writer says, “He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Praying in the Temple daily, Simeon was ready for the Christ because he had been engaged in that holy and hopeful waiting. Even in the long waiting and seeming absence of Christ, the Holy Spirit was with him. He was ready to recognize the Christ when he was presented to him.
We can cultivate the same kind of readiness that the prophet exhibited by being present to the quiet work of waiting. Just as I let my garden rest before the ground finally thaws, I realize that the dormancy is just as important as the growing and producing. So it is in my spiritual liminal times that I can rest in the hope that the seed is preparing for its burst through the soil. In the fallow fields, the earth gathers the nutrients to bring forth nourishment and beauty in the spring. Can it be that what may seem fruitless waiting is actually preparation for what is yet to come?
As I wait for the butterfly, I won’t miss the beauty of the chrysalis—the work in progress. Just as the Creator takes such exquisite care to craft a vessel for the common Cabbage White’s transformation to its adult stage, so God holds us in the sacred, still space of waiting to facilitate our own deep metamorphosis.
Teresa Knipper is a spiritual director, Master Gardener, and butterfly aficionada, listening to God's presence in the lives of people, plants, and winged creatures. She lives with her husband, Jim, in New Jersey where they are still waiting for spring.
Image of chrysalis courtesy Teresa Knipper
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5154