We Shall All Be Changed Into Soup
May I make a suggestion? The caterpillar should be the official mascot of Advent. Advent is the time for change, and the caterpillar knows all about that – or at least, he will. Advent is the time for realizing that we are just humble creepers, hungry and helpless. Advent is the time for hanging in a transitional state, waiting to be reborn. Into butterflies! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful butterflies.
Yeah, have you ever taken a close look at a butterfly -- at the body, not just the pretty wings? Maybe we had it vaguely in our heads that a butterfly is just sort of a slimmed-down worm, plus fluttering -- that the elegant butterfly body is what's left after cracking out of a thick and extraneous caterpillar shell.
But it is not. A butterfly's body is something entirely different from the caterpillar. It's something entirely new. It doesn't even have the same bodily systems inside, the same kind of head or legs, or the same brain. Where did this body come from?
Soup. It was formed out of cellular soup. That's what was happening to the caterpillar's body while it was inside the cocoon: it is dissolving itself, actually digesting itself -- and it's just as disgusting as it sounds. That's the only way that the metamorphosis can happen, the only way the new body can grow.
I suppose you think I'm just going to wrap this up nicely about now, and say, "See? That's what God wants from us at Advent. Advent is a time not only of preparation, but of deep change. Change! Conversion! Metamorphosis! Painful but necessary. God breaks us down so that He can build us up. Let go and let God, and only then will you find your wings and fly!"
And this is true. Change will happen to all of us, sooner or later, no matter what our state in life. If we don't allow it to happen in our lifetimes, it will happen in purgatory, if we're lucky. Better by far to understand that it will happen, and not to panic when things do start to change. It is still part of the plan, when things get all weird and unfamiliar -- when God seems to be asking things of us that we never would have asked of ourselves, or for ourselves. At some point, God will grab our attention by hanging us upside down on a limb, trapping us inside our skins, and turning us into mush. It's okay. It's part of the plan.
Fine. So Advent is a time of change, and most adult Catholics realize this. But even if you understand that this intensely, intimately transformative process is probably part of God's will, and even if you are ready and willing to withstand the pain and suffering that change can bring . . . what if you don't really like butterflies? What if you look at them and all you can think is, "DON'T YOU PEOPLE REALIZE THAT'S JUST A BUG? WHAT IF IT GETS IN MY MOUTH?"
That is to say, what if we see something that is being presented as God's Will For Us, and all we can think is, "Ew?" I see people who have been changed by God, and some of them really don’t appeal to me at all. They seem foreign in bad ways, not in good ways. Why would God make me the way I am, if He just plans to turn me into mush and start fresh?
We can deal with hard work, we can deal with pain and suffering. But our secret fear is that, if we open ourselves to change, we will become an alien to ourselves. We will turn into something we won't recognize. And even if that new thing is a good thing -- what happens to us? Doesn't God love us now? Will we be lost?
This fearful idea, the fear that who we are will be lost, is a desperate temptation from the devil, which he throws at people who are on the verge of giving their hearts to God. It's a temptation, and a temptation is a lie. We will not be lost.
Here's something else you might not know about butterflies: they may look completely different from how they did when they were caterpillars. BUT THEY REMEMBER. They remember their past life. Researchers have discovered that butterflies know things -- simple things, of course, like which kind of flowers taste bad -- that they only could have learned when they were caterpillars, before they were broken down, lovingly destroyed, melted into goo for their own good.
If they really are different creatures from what they used to be, then how can this be? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
When caterpillars are broken down into that cellular soup, they are not simply a formless, digested mess. They're not nothing. They're something specific, and in that soup is something worth preserving. It turns out that caterpillars' bodies, even from before the time they hatch out of their eggs, harbor in themselves something called "imaginal discs," which are sort of like stem cells: they can grow into just about anything. These discs are ready and waiting, when the time is right, to become the wings, eyes, legs, antennae of a butterfly.
Furthermore, something of their neurons remain, too. Their new brains remember old flowers. As different as they become, they are still themselves.
They’re not really entirely new creatures – not really foreign. They're just the full-blown realization of what they always had been. They need to retain what they had before. There was something good there -- something worth saving. I was a caterpillar; I am now a butterfly. I am still me.
God has given us these days to work on ourselves, and the spiritual chemistry is already always in motion: to build ourselves into who we are supposed to be, we pray. We fast. We give alms. We praise Him when we'd rather sleep; we suffer when we'd rather relax. We keep a vigil in our cocoons, alert to new ideas and fresh movements of the spirit. And we can take comfort in the idea that there are things about us right now which are worth retaining. There are things which our perfected, transformed selves will include. God likes us. He wants us to be transformed, not because what we are is no good, but because what we are is not finished yet.