In gratitude for Swallowtails

swallowtailSome time ago someone brought me a large, green caterpillar on an ash leaf. I raised the caterpillar until it pupated, and then I kept the chrysalis until this butterfly emerged from it. People that know about these things call this a Three-tailed Swallowtail (Papilio pilumnus). Those of you who live in the United States have probably seen something like this flying around. There are at least two similar species there. In the east there is one called the Tiger Swallowtail, with one tail, and in the west there is one called the Western Tiger Swallowtail, with two tails. You have to get almost into Mexico to see one like this one, with three tails.

Whichever one you may see, there is something about these butterflies that it seems to me is worth noting. Namely, they are all really more beautiful than they would seem to need to be. They don’t need to be this beautiful in order to breed successfully, or, at any rate, there are many less-striking butterflies that seem to maintain their populations very well. If anything, since they are hard to miss as they fly by (and they don’t seem to slow down much), it would seem that their beauty only would tend to attract the attention of predators.

The best theory that I know of for explaining this kind of gratuitous beauty is that it arises from the creativity of an artist who was interested in the beauty for its own sake, or maybe for ours. This may have been what Samuel Taylor Coleridge was thinking of when he wrote, near the end of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Three-tailed Swallowtail is probably not the world’s most beautiful butterfly. And butterflies may not be your thing at all. Nonetheless, whether it is flowers, spiders, birdsongs, sunsets, music, mountains, forests, night skies, mathematics, or rain on the roof, we are continuously surrounded by marvels of gratuitous beauty beyond all explanation, unless it should be that a loving artist poured his heart into them.

We recently prepared a book of translated songs for a non-English-speaking church. In the course of our work, we discovered that when a human being creates a song (or any ‘intellectual property’), he likes to receive credit for his work. He may even insist upon being paid for the use of it. We had to leave some of our translated songs out of the book, because the author or current owner either refused permission altogether for us to publish the translated version or else wanted more money for the privilege than we were willing to pay.

God has never asked for royalties. We can enjoy his works for free, and can study them, copy them, and even incorporate them into our own art with no interference whatsoever. Once I embroidered a Monarch onto the back of a denim jacket.

However, God does seem to expect a minimum of recognition for his work, and he can be very serious about this. In the spring of 2003, I had the privilege of leading a translation workshop on the book of Romans with over 30 participants, mostly indigenous people of Mexico. We didn’t get beyond chapter 1 before we discovered that Paul, not once but three times, makes the clear point that the root of sin is the failure to acknowledge what can be known about God through the creation and to give him gratitude for what he has made. I suppose this failure could be compared to visiting the Sistine Chapel and commenting that there isn’t anything so terribly extraordinary there, that this sort of thing just happens to pop up every now and then. Not very respectful of Michelangelo. And the consequence in Romans 1 of disrespecting God in this way is to be given over to all manner of moral corruption. To repeat, moral corruption in Romans 1 is not the root of our problem. It is the consequence of failing to take God seriously. Sin is not the offense; it is the punishment.

From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God…. Instead of believing what they knew was the truth about God, they deliberately chose to believe lies. So they worshiped the things God made but not the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever. Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. —Romans 1:20, 25, 26, NLT.

The Roman philosopher Cicero said: Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others. He and Paul seem to coincide here: Until we learn to thank God for his manifold goodness to us in the creation and otherwise, we will necessarily remain moral infants. Look around.

Is your faith a little flabby or not even nascent? I suggest you get a camera and take at least 100 pictures in a national park. Work hard to take good ones. Then come home and try to say that there was nothing extraordinary there. There is a whole lot more to the story, but this is where it begins.

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  1. I loved the picture.


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