The Very Hungry Caterpillar was an all-time family favourite when our children were little, and now, many years later, it has delightfully reappeared at story-time with our toddler grandchildren, writes Monica Dutton.
Written more than 50 years ago, Eric Carle’s simple, beautifully illustrated little picture book has captured the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike.
Essentially, it tells the story of the life cycle of a tiny caterpillar emerging from an egg on a leaf on a moonlit night, through to its metamorphosis into a stunningly beautiful butterfly. Along with teaching important life lessons about numbers, colours, days of the week and nutrition, transformation of life through its different phases is explored with distinctive perception and insight.
Like all good children’s literature, The Very Hungry Caterpillar holds profound significance for adults as well. Over time, the story has become an invaluable way of illuminating the incomprehensible concept of death for young children. The little caterpillar lived a very happy life, and after being wrapped in a dark cocoon, resurrects to an unimaginably beautiful new life. The message is poignantly clear – life is changed not ended.
Belief in the resurrection of the dead is central to the Christian tradition, and this is also beautifully articulated as ‘life is changed not ended’ as we ritually farewell those we love. We are reminded also of the inevitability of our own death in the cyclical nature of the liturgical year. Ash Wednesday impels us to contemplate our mortality as we are marked with ashes and reminded that we, too, will one day return to dust.
For 40 days we have lived in ashes, and this time of ashes has been different for each of us. While some prefer to adhere to the traditional observances associated with prayer, fasting and almsgiving, others see Lent as being not so much about what to give up, but what additional opportunities to take on, particularly in relation to the service of others. While St Benedict counsels that the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent, he acknowledges that few have the strength for this (RB 49:1-2).
We all begin with good intentions. Just as our little friend the caterpillar began by eating wholesome foods like watermelon and apples, it somehow became side-tracked along the way and ventured into chocolate cake and strawberry ice-cream. We too, often become side-tracked from our well-intentioned commitments. Life’s exhaustion creeps in and undermines our initial resolve. We fall asleep at the wheel, like the apostles in Gethsemane.
As with many aspects of the Christian tradition, divergent views over literal and figurative interpretations of the resurrection abound. “Did Jesus literally rise from the dead in a bodily resurrection? Or was his rising a symbolic one, a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world?”
Research conducted by the National Church Life Survey in 2022 indicated 44 per cent of Australians were found to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way, with three in 10 not believing in the resurrection, and more than one-quarter of the population undecided.
With this as the current national landscape for the question of the resurrection, Easter certainly needs more than just bunnies and butterflies!
David Farina Turnbloom offers a helpful perspective in reiterating that biblical truth is so much more than historical facts and suggests that a story’s most important truth lies as much in its future as in its past.
“When we find the truth of a story by courageously living out what it calls us to do, then we have truly come to believe in that story. The past-oriented question of historicity, while meaningful, gives way to the future-oriented question of mission. The truth of Christ’s resurrection is verified in a life of love and justice far more than it is verified by an empty tomb.”
Our journey through Lent is one of personal conversion; a change of heart, mind and spirit. Our Easter joy then, is marked by our capacity to be resurrection people ourselves, and to seek out and to raise up those living in the darkest of places. Catholic Social Teaching tells us clearly that an authentic response to the suffering of our sisters and brothers requires action as well as prayer. Pope Francis also verifies God’s mission in saying “you pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That is how prayer works.”
Year after year, we ourselves enter the Word through the cycle of readings recounting the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We take our place in these stories as we tread the journey and reflect upon their meaning in our own time and place. David Farina Turnbloom again asserts that “the future of a story is the mission it calls us towards. It is in living our mission that we fully know the truth of the Gospel.”
To a large extent then, the way we have maintained our chosen path for the Lenten journey determines our openness to the lived experience of our baptismal call. As we emerge revitalised from our Lenten cocoon and look around with renewed vision, we need to seriously ask ourselves, “Who are the people I need to seek out and to raise up?” Right here, right now, today.
In the bubble of our increasingly sophisticated reality, simple messages can be such a blessing. Whatever our personal interpretation of the historical and biblical events surrounding the resurrection may be, the symbolism of the beautiful butterfly emerging to newness of life from the darkness of the cocoon reflects our own conversion of life; our change of heart, mind and spirit.
We are invited into the Paschal Mystery to live the infinite love of the Easter message; to be one in hope, to be resurrection people for others, and to respond with love to the mission it calls us towards.