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Diary: Catherine Fox

28 March 2024


Small world

THIS diary piece is written at the close of a sabbatical spent mostly in Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been navigating Lent in high summer, and spending half my time in your tomorrow in an upside-down world where north-facing means warm. I have learned that, though we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the globe, even there we will encounter Anglicans who know Anglicans we know. There is only one degree of separation, not five, in our worldwide Communion.

Strictly speaking, it was only the Bishop enjoying a sabbatical. I’ve continued working for Manchester Met, as remotely as possible without leaving the planet altogether. Remote working is one of the very few silver-lining legacies of the pandemic — talking of which, I picked up a second bout right at the start of our time away. I spent the first few weeks roaming the blurry edge-lands of Covid, thinking I was fully recovered when, with hindsight, I can see I was still mildly unhinged.

In this state, I became obsessed with a dream that I had before we set off on our journeys. I dreamt I was in the path of migrating caterpillars who were crawling up my right arm, across my shoulders, then down my left arm and off on their way. If you google “caterpillar dreams” you will discover that they signify a new stage of life: the transition to a butterfly. I took the sheer number of caterpillars to be a heavy underlining of this message.

Perhaps you have little patience with this kind of New Age tosh? Bear with me; for we are heading towards a potential sermon illustration about death and resurrection, which may be of use to anyone preaching this Easter.

Betwixt and between

“APPROACHING a transition to a new stage of life”, Google says. This had already been hinted at by those “Planning for Retirement” emails from HR. It can be good to get an outside pair of eyes on your experience when you sense you are nearing one of life’s major junctions. Soul-friends or spiritual directors may well spot patterns that elude us. They might also repeat back to us our throwaway comments, and highlight their significance.

So, I arranged to speak to one of the Sisters at the Mary McKillop Heritage Centre, where we were based, to see whether she could help me to find a way through this thicket of caterpillar-riddled weirdness.

Thanks to this wonderfully patient soul-friend, I now know that every cell in the caterpillar is transformed and re-purposed for it to emerge as a butterfly. While it is in the chrysalis, its body essentially liquifies. (This reminds me of that charming primary-school rhyme about caterpillar custard.)

How strange to be in this state of meltdown, where everything you’ve known is being made over! There is nothing you can do to speed up or delay the process. For those of us used to control and agency, this is unnerving. Resist, resist at all costs!

Swift to its close

IS THIS what death and resurrection is like? “My soul in peace shall rest, And for a season slumber, Till trump from east to west Shall wake the dead in number.” That would make each small letting-go a rehearsal for the ultimate relinquishing.

I thought about this as I watched the sun set in the outback. The bright disc slips below the rim of the land and, between one moment and the next, is gone. The sun will return, yes. But now, in this moment, today, with its unique specificity, is over.

There will be final breath, too: a final heartbeat in our earthly life, as we slip below the horizon in the hope of resurrection.

Given for you?

EVERYWHERE in Australia, there are reminders that the land we are on was taken, not ceded. It’s articulated in the interpretation at scenic lookouts and tourist sites. There are formal acknowledgments of the traditional owners, and an honouring of Elders and First Nations people at the start of church services and performances.

This brings into focus the colonialist preoccupation everywhere with ownership and control, with extracting and profiting. I find myself uncomfortably attuned to all my own metaphors of grasping and hanging on to things.

Seize the day, get the most out of life, master this skill, exploit the opportunity, take full advantage of what’s on offer. The words of Jesus pull me up short: those who seek to save their life will lose it.

Imagine there’s a heaven

YES, but who wants to be turned into caterpillar custard, to be unmade — even if the end result is getting to emerge as a butterfly? What is the connection between the before and the after? Where do I go in that process?

You will be pleased to learn that there are some clusters of cells that survive the meltdown in the chrysalis. These are pre-coded to become legs and antennae and wings. And the adult that emerges is called the imago. You will see where I am going with this, preachers. Deep in our spiritual DNA lies the imago dei coding that nothing can destroy.

The Easter hope is not for ourselves alone to dance like butterflies in a summer breeze and dine on nectar for all eternity. The coding runs through the entire cosmos. Our faith reminds us that, however grim the political outlook, however grave the climate emergency, however desperate the suffering, there is no apocalyptic meltdown capable of finally destroying God’s handiwork.

That is why we live and work to his praise and glory, unclenching our hands over and over, and letting go daily of our tiny, frightened, caterpillar selves.

Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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