A couple of weeks ago, several of my friends who still live in Oklahoma started exclaiming on social media about seeing the stopovers of the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico. The local paper in my hometown estimated that over a million butterflies had passed through the area on their way south to their winter habitat in Mexico.
It’s a sight that, if you are privileged to witness it in person, you will never forget. When I was about eight or nine, I remember tens of thousands of them roosting on the trees in the park across from my grandfather’s house. Even though back then, we took monarchs for granted, they were so common, this was an amazing sight. Everywhere I looked, I saw cream, orange and black wings opening and closing as they prepared themselves for the next leg of the journey. The only sound was the sound of my own breath as I stood there, stunned. And I wondered, “How do they know how to do this? How do they live long enough to make the journey?” I started studying and collecting butterflies, and so I later learned that the insects who migrate south are the ancestors of the insects who will migrate back north in the spring. The next morning I watched them depart in a blur of joy and felt wonder again renewed at the sight.
The readings for this Sunday from both Job and Psalm 104 extol the awesome power and breadth of creation that I felt looking at that cloud of butterflies that fall so many years ago. In Job 38, some of the most lyrical descriptions for creation leap vividly from the page, much like those butterflies themselves, as God challenges Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
I guess some people may tire of the description of God creating the universe to music that we see described here, but I’m not one of them. I was astonished a couple of years ago to learn that astronomers have discovered that the stars, planets, and other heavenly objects actually do sing, in a manner of speaking. Just when we think we have the beauty of creation domesticated to fit our understanding and our needs, we learn something to remind us of the elegance and also accuracy of an ancient poet’s imagery.
And this amazing planet that spins as a blue speck among those stars, has these amazing clouds of insects flying hundreds of miles based on some ancient drive imprinted into their very being. The sweep and breadth of creation between these two poles occasionally seize our attention enough to do a nearly impossible thing: cause blasé, cynical people (as I feign to be too much of the time) stop and stare in wonder, as, just for a moment, they consider the handiwork of the universe, the pulse and thrum of life that you can feel with your feet planted firmly upon the cooling earth. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures!” the psalmist proclaims.
We live too much of our lives with our eyes turned away from anything but our most basic of concerns, blinded by anxiety or hubris from taking notice of anything that appears smaller than ourselves. Yet while we have been distracted, things like monarch butterflies have gone from being so common as to be beneath our notice to being so rare that some people rarely see one outside of an exhibit.
Only in the last few years have many people become aware that these creatures are not only delicate and fragile but necessary for our survival, for the pollination of crops that help feed and clothe us. Now we see people planting what once were called weeds in hopes of helping protect and nurture the bees and butterflies who are not only beautiful, but, we haltingly realize, are vital benefactors in producing fruitful fields for our sustenance.
Just a few short days ago, those butterflies were caterpillars chewing milkweed down to the nubs, and now they navigate 3,000 miles in fragile, determined clouds, pressing on to a home they have never seen and will never leave.
A couple of days after my friends started posting about the butterfly migration, I sat amidst the prolific painter’s palette plants that have taken over huge swaths of my backyard hillside, and I listened to the industrious buzzing of bees and wasps laboring gratefully amidst the millions of tiny crimson flowers, and thought about how, for most of my life, I had taken that sound and those bees for granted. Where there previously might have been only scorn or wariness as my reaction to that vibration, now was only awe and gratitude. In wisdom God has made them all, indeed.
The wonder expressed in both Job 38 and Psalm 104 startles with its earnest humility and awe, especially when heard now, in our modern era of species extinction and climate change. These verses call us to re-awaken to ourselves and our interdependence upon the myriad forms of life that share this planet, and a humble reminder of our places not above but within creation.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers