I am delighted to share our first submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community (you can read the call for submissions here). Teresa Knipper attended our Awakening the Creative Spirit intensive this past fall and it was a delight to get to know her playful spirit and her passion for butterflies. Read on for her wisdom:
Waiting for God in the Deep Midwinter
Recently I was watering my indoor plants and inspecting a late summer acquisition from the bargain rack of my local nursery. I cannot 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. I saw with closer inspection a bump on the leaf that was a butterfly chrysalis. Scouring my resources, I discovered that it was the chrysalis of the Cabbage White, a rather mundane denizen of agricultural fields and gardens that is 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 pest? These questions lead me to wonder about the many ways that God makes waiting palpable, possible and even beautiful in the natural world. The bleak winter landscape seems devoid of life and color yet contains buds and possibility for all the new growth of spring. The intermediate stages of many insects can be appreciated for their own beauty just as I had wondered about my little green chrysalis once I noticed and named it.
It seems possible, at times, that our spiritual life can have the same quality of waiting and dormancy. There are periods of dryness, complacency or non movement in our prayers and contemplations. We can use the lessons from the natural world to learn how to be in what can be the difficult liminal space of waiting. In the winter of my spiritual life can I slow down to notice all that possibility? What about noticing the possibility in my own heart? Winter spirituality is a time of patience and being present with the possible and perhaps 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 wintertime are quieter and more contemplative. They may include journaling, or making a midwinter retreat, taking winter walks crunching over frozen paths or even walking a labyrinth in my backyard made from snow. Many of these practices can engender a quiet and patient anticipation of what is next in store for our souls.
The dark dormancy of midwinter outside can give us a unique context to understand how to wait for those things in our lives that are not yet seen or perhaps even imagined. Waiting is particularly hard for us as high speed internet and data exchange happens at the speed of light. Is there any point to waiting?? How can we wait?
Henri Nouwen gives us great insight into the nature and holiness of waiting in his work The Spirituality of Waiting. Nouwen invokes the stories of Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth and Simeon and the Prophetess Anna from Scripture to enlighten us about the sanctity of waiting. 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.
There is none of this passivity in nature either. Although we think of a caterpillar as “sleeping” in its chrysalis, in actuality, incredible transformation is occurring. The essential cells and DNA are first breaking down and then being rearranged into a completely different creature. The insect goes from a creature that crawls on the earth or on the leaves of plants to a winged beauty that can take flight and astound the observer with its luminous colors; to the casual observer this is not apparent.
What then is the clue 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 presenting to 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 that, “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. He was ready to recognize the Christ when he was presented to him.
As seekers we can cultivate the same kind of readiness that the prophet exhibited by being present to the quiet work of winter spirituality. In the winter when the soil is frozen and unworkable I draw inside to the garden of my heart to till. The journaling and retreats are the compost I add to the garden of my soul.
Just as I let my garden rest, I realize that the dormancy is just as important as the growing and fertilizing. So it is in my spiritual winter that I can rest in the hope that God is working the soil of my inner soul. In the fallow fields, the earth gathers the nutrients to bring forth nourishment and beauty in the following spring. Can it be that what may seem as quiet waiting is actually preparation for what is yet to come?
I believe the Creator may have placed that chrysalis on my house plant to remind me that as I wait for the butterfly, I should not miss the beauty of the chrysalis– the undone piece. Just as the Creator takes such exquisite care to craft a vessel for the common butterfly’s transformation to its adult stage so God has created the indescribable beauty of the quiet winter landscape in order to facilitate my own deep metamorphosis.
Teresa Knipper blends her two passions by both practicing spiritual direction in Princeton NJ and serving as a Master Gardener in her county. She particularly loves inspiring home owners to create space for wildlife in their own gardens by imparting her own knowledge of butterflies and native plants. Teresa finds God in the most densely populated state in the United States by seeking the wild places that are still there if you seek- even in New Jersey!
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I love it all, Teresa. I am a flower gardener myself in Ohio which is covered in ice and snow right now. Just as you observed the chrysalis, I noticed growth on an orchid in my house that is “growing” once again. It has been dormant for a year or two but I have patiently or impatiently waited in hope. Oh how such little things inspire us. I am so excited. I left the light on in the corner of my home to encourage it while I visit my daughter and grandchildren. I don’t think of myself as a patient person but in this case it is worth it. Can’t wait to see what happens. Thank you so much for this beautiful story. It feels like scripture itself and the birth of all that it is beautiful and worth the wait. Have a blessed New Year.
Merry Christmas, Teresa. Thank you for this beautiful testimony to the joy of being present to each moment, and seeing even the waiting as a gift.
You have forever changed my view of cabbage whites. The one pictured here, emerging from its narrow, enclosed life, strikes me as a rare beauty, made twice as beautiful by the window’s reflection and this rich meditation.
Reading your wonderful story brought such calm and peace to me. And the remembrance to be present and attend to every change in my life. Thank you and Merry Christmas!
This is beautfiul thinking and writing. Thank you, Teresa! I love how you saw the unexpected “pest” as a gift and let it live.