We Christians often like to talk about transformation, but the cocoon phase of that process is less glamorous. The Bible spills over with stories about men and women in cocoons of one sort or another. The message each time is the same. Some metamorphosis happens fast, but more often than not, change takes some time.
The growth required to move from caterpillar to butterfly fascinates me. I remember as a child finding an exotic caterpillar in my backyard. I put it in a small plastic container with food and a stick. Soon a greyish sack, smooth on one side and puckered on the other, hung from the twig I had leaned against one side. I waited forever. I was about eight, so the month or so that the cocoon dangled seemed endless. Our Irish setter, Ethan, accidentally knocked it over and I feared all was lost.
But one day I checked on my little charge and found the cocoon opened, an empty casing lying on the bottom of the container. At the edge, opening and closing its wings, a moth perched, the color of purple and midnight. I still remember the dark velvet of its wings that spread five or six inches across. To me, the moth seemed magical and I still don’t know what kind it was. I didn’t think Southern California had such exotic insects.
Years later, a woman told me, as she tried to help me escape my first husband that I was a caterpillar about to be turned into a beautiful butterfly. I immediately thought of the moth and its luxuriant feathered wings. I suppose she was right. After all, living without fear of abuse does cause a rebirth of sorts. I learned to spread my wings a little.
But I don’t think it was a true cocoon phase. God has specific purposes for His children and He cannot accomplish them without full surrender on our parts. I used to wonder why it was that God seemed to recruit people so late in the game. After all, Moses was eighty. Abraham was a bit older. Jesus was thirty and He only worked his gig for three years before He embodied the butterfly metaphor with more power than any of the prophets who had come before him.
But butterflies live only days or weeks. Like so many of the people in the Bible, the prep time lasted far beyond the years of their purpose. Some caterpillars live for a year or more before turning themselves in for the dark night of the soul. I suppose in our busy culture we lose the understanding of what it means to wait, solitary and confined, for our big break out moment. We engage in all sorts of activities to hurry our success along, not understanding that some things take time. Some things must be done alone.
Sometimes I think that the middle age crisis that happens to men and women alike is a way of avoiding the cocoon. Life happens fast. We spend two or more decades learning, ingesting everything that comes our way like the corpulent caterpillars munching their way through leaf after leaf. Then we get busy and take our educations and apply them, busily learning what we need to know for life. How to work. How to be married. How to raise children.
And then it hits. The invitation to the soul to discover its purpose. Once the end is in sight, once the children are raised and the grandchildren begin to pop up, what then? What is the purpose of a butterfly? The larva does not know or care. It has work to do. Things to learn. Obstacles to overcome. But the butterfly has really only one job. To reproduce.
By now you are thinking that my metaphor has broken down. After all, our twenties, thirties, and forties are filled with reproduction, depending on when we start. And surely that is part of our purpose. To be mothers and fathers. Yes. But our children are only part of our role in the Great Commission. Each of us has a purpose outside of our relationships with our family. Each of us has a gift that God wants to see sparkling across the landscape of creation. We are called to make others like ourselves, disciples of Christ. And we are called to be like Him. That is a lot of reproduction.
So if you find yourself in a dry season and clueless about why you are where you are, you may be in this process. Being in a cocoon feels a bit like a prison. Like the shroud that wrapped Jesus’ body, you feel enclosed in a death-like state. Nothing that used to work to make you feel good works anymore. And no one understands. Cocoons are solitary. Just you. And God if you let Him. Everyone points out how great your life is, but they don’t get your dissatisfaction.
There has to be more. And yet there isn’t. And humans have a long lifespan. We need more than thirty days to achieve metamorphosis. Jesus took three days, granted. But He is God. Moses spent forty years in the desert before he spent forty years in the wilderness. And Paul spent fourteen years in some mysterious communion with God before he was set loose with his evangelistic fire. Really God must have been in a hurry because fourteen years seems pretty short. At least his cocoon wasn’t as gruesome as Jonah’s in the belly of the whale, or Joseph who rotted in an Egyptian prison for years.
But if you are in a shell, waiting to burst forth, and yet unable to, take heart. The longer you stay wrapped up, allowing God to completely rewire your spirit so that you can sprout wings, the better. Surrender to this process because that is its purpose, to work in you the gifts you can’t achieve without His help.
A worm cannot fly without the intervention of nature. And neither can you soar in your gifts fully, spreading your glorious wings, until the hand of God has held you tight. The more you struggle against His grip the longer it will take. But when He finally opens His hand, you will be so much more than you ever could on your own. Cease from your own labors and enter into His cocoon with thanksgiving in your heart. Do you want wings or do you just want to inch your way along the dry earth?
Some classics on the dark night of the soul and the cocoon. The one by Sue Monk Kidd should be read by every person over forty-five.