We had our annual clergy pre-Lent retreat on Monday night-Tuesday morning. One of our shared promises with each other was confidentiality. I want to honor that and will not post any of what transpired among us, beyond saying it was a good time together and I am greatful to the Bishop and the two presenters.
We watched a short movie, The Butterfly Circus, and it was the basis of our meditation. The film takes about 20 minutes and I have provided the link above. I can say it is worth seeing. If you want to see it without knowing what will happen, I suggest you click and watch right now and do not continue reading.
[Spoiler alert: really.... watch it....]
The movie is set in the Depression. It begins in a car with a child and two men. It is interesting to me the reaction I had at the beginning. I felt some foreboding and wondered exactly what was going on. I think my reaction was fueled, in part, by previous movies that the driver had been in. I googled him and found out that he is frequently in science fiction and horror movies. As you saw in the film, he is a contortionist. This leads to my first point, the power of assumptions.
Years ago E.T. was a huge box office hit. My dad commented afterward that the early scene when the young boy is looking around in his back yard (the first encounter of the boy and the ET) would actually have been terrifying in most movies. However, we knew it was a kids' movie and so it was played for laughs. In any number of other films similar scenes have been percieved very differently. This insight was the genious behind several faux movie commercials which were generated 5-7 years ago. They took popular movies (e.g. Sleepless in Seattle) and recast them as a different genre (from Romantic Comedy to Drama-Horror). Then the over voice provided a new scenario and the exerpts from the movie took on a different twist. It was all wonderfully creative and wildly entertaining to watch. And it perfectly illustrated the power of context for seeing and interpretting.
Watching this beginning, my mind was a flutter. I knew a retreat would not have a slasher movie! Yet I found myself half expecting something bad to happen. When the car heads to a carnival the glances between characters made me wonder if they planned to rob the place. It wasn't long before a character I recongnized appeared. He is a Christian evangelist, a man with no arms or legs. I have heard him speak and he is a powerful speaker. Once again, the context matters. A man with no arms and legs evokes all manner of feeling in his hearers. Seeing him, my expectations shifted. I knew this was headed in a more traditional retreat-setting direction.
The film-parable unfolded with an actual caterpillar in a jar enterring a cocoon, even as various characters were presented as human caterpillars. As is the case in film, the story was neat and clean. In a 20 minute film it has to be. But the story was very powerful and the message resonates. "You are magnificent," the leader had proclaimed to the limbless man (whose shocking reaction served to demonstrate his unbelief that it was true). The word God occurs three times, but each time in the sentence "A man whom God Himself has turned His back upon." The limbless man, called "a man, if you could even call him a man" reminded me of the Elephant Man, a much longer movie but similar in its stunning portrayal of the humanity of those whom we would call freaks. In the end, the leader of the butterfly circus challenges the limbless man by saying, "you believe it." And then the freak becomes "every man" and the story unveils the lies for which each and everyone of us have fallen. Sometimes unbelief is not the problem, sometimes it is wrong belief.
The demonic world, the present darkness under the dominion of the Prince of this Age (satan) has provided us with distorted and perverted understanding. We do not see clearly. We see dimly, through a darkened mirror (recall ancient mirrors do not have the clarity of modern ones). So we fall victim to half truths, lies and deceptions. We use the wrong scales to measure our worth and the worth of others. We see from below and lose sight of what is seen from above. The movie's central image, the butterfly, was the dominant symbol of Jesus in the 1970's and 80's of my church life. It was a time when banner making was all the rage and most Catholic churches of my memory included at least one huge butterfly banner. The connection to resurrection was foremost. The Lord Jesus' body in the cocoon (tomb) of death gives way to the glorifed new state of his resurrection body. I never saw the butterfly as a symbol of my own journey. Yet, in truth, that is also a central message of the Gospel. We too shall be raised into a new state of being.
While not limbless, I and you gaze into a world where we each feel, from time to time, that we are a freak on display. We are beaten down by faults and failures which raise the taunt, "if you can call me human." Like John Merrick's Elephant Man, we have to clutch our God-given dignity and cry out "I am not an animal" (even if pop-science and pop-culture would say that is all we are, though more highly evolved). Like Will, the limbless man in The Butterfly Circus, we must believe the (ring) Master's declaration, "You are Magnificent!" (and with greatful hearts thank God, in Whose face we have spit, over and over again...what else is sin?) Our duty as Christians is to proclaim the Kingdom. To tell an unbelieving world that God IS and God loves His creatures. That duty is a burden for those who do not believe it and perhaps our uncertainty is why teh church does such a poor job proclaiming it.
Believing sets us free. Believing lets us see. Believing makes it possible for even the limbless one to soar and swim and become a sign of hope; light in the present darkness. I am keenly aware that many of us have not had the clarifying moment where all doubt of God's good favor and love embrace are ours. [Part of the reason is because there are numerous more ominous streams of revelation which have themes of expectation and harsher judgment.] I do not know how to balance it all out. My critics have yet to convinve me that God's love is blind to all we do. After all, much of the time we are the gaping, mocking crowd, enjoying the misfortune of others who serve as the butt of our jokes (or "better him than me" sighs of relief).
Even so, the God who demands and punishes is the same God who rescues and saves. In the end, it is His whispered "You are magnificent" (or, in Genesis, "God saw it was good", or, in Isaiah "I will never forget you, I have carved your name in the palm of my hand, or from Jesus "I have chosen you...I have loved you"). We are challenged to look beyond our flaws and errors and to embrace the promise of a fuller life. If this little movie makes it a bit easier today to do that, then it was worth watching. If you do not have time, then I hope reading this provides the same relief...
I hope you enjoy the film!