Falling apart to flourish
A paper prepared by Sue Hay for the Thought Matters Conference 23-25 August 2019
Introduction: Imaginal Cells
The most sacred role I have experienced thus far as a Salvation Army Officer is as Chaplain at the Christchurch Bridge addiction centre. At the same time as commencing as Chaplain we moved into a home which boasted a very large, well-established swan plant. As I searched for a theology to make sense of the overwhelming brokenness experienced by Bridge participants I watched numerous caterpillars disappear into tomb-like cocoons. Their process became the symbol of hope I was looking for: the darkest spaces give rise to the most beautiful transformations.
More recently I discovered that a caterpillar is born with something known as imaginal cells. These cells contain all a caterpillar needs to become a butterfly. Perhaps these imaginal cells direct a caterpillar to literally feed an inner calling. Certainly something compels a caterpillar to consume excessively until it finally retreat into a dark transitional space. During this phase a caterpillar relinquishes its past identity and disintegrates into a gooey mess safely contained within a chrysalis. Aptly known as caterpillar soup the only elements a caterpillar retains in the goo are its imaginal cells. Once a caterpillar’s essence is condensed into soup the imaginal cells draw on this history to transform into a beautiful butterfly able to fly free. This is the only path a caterpillar can follow if it is to embrace its intended identity.
By unpacking the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) we see the Prodigal was called to follow a similar pathway through brokenness to transformation. Once his pain was contained in the arms of his Father he discovered his true identity as son and heir. Whereas the Older Son lived out a vocational calling - working for the Father - yet remained disconnected from both him and his full identity as cherished son.
The word prodigal means irresponsible, wasteful, reckless and wanton. This description of the seeking son conveys our universal judgement of his journey. Preachers typically condemn him for attempting to satisfy his inner emptiness with choices which resulted in supposedly unnecessary failure and futility. Yet none of us ever judge a caterpillar for embarking on a journey which causes it to totally unravel. We do not conclude a caterpillar has failed when its inner calling leads it to completely break down. Instead we celebrate the process because we understand this is how God creates a glorious butterfly. Could it be that the Prodigal Son needed to follow a similar calling?
Just as a caterpillar feeds and follows an inner drive the Prodigal Son was similarly compelled to leave home to pursue pleasures which he hoped would satisfy his internal emptiness. Many who struggle with compulsive urges describe a similar yearning to fill an inner vacuum with substances or experiences. Deep down we all appear to sense the Spirit calling us to something more; nudging us towards an elusive imagined flourishing. And just like the Prodigal many of us respond to this prompting by exploring various options as we attempt to satisfy the call of our hearts. By ruling out what does not work we eventually reach the end of our own resources - materially, emotionally and spiritually. As Richard Rohr confirms, ‘Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well or the constantly flowing stream.’ Once we exhaust all other options we, like the Prodigal, finally understand we are actually being called to intimate connection with our Divine Parent.
Our own call to intimacy with God may see us initially turn to substitutes including unhealthy relationships, sex, possessions, food, ego-stroking vocations such as leadership, missional zeal, addictive substances or compulsive activities (including Officership). The gnawing hunger in our hearts can subtly draw us into choices which replace God as our first and ultimate source. It seems that, like the Prodigal, we too must experience brokenness before we understand how far we have strayed from home. In the language of the 12 Steps we are confronted with our powerlessness over our feelings and behaviours and are faced with the reality that life currently feels rather unmanageable.
Once the Prodigal had exhausted all other options he ‘came to his senses’ (Luke 15:17). He became desperate enough to return home with a repentant, humble resolve to utterly rely on his Father’s generosity to supply all he needed. When everything we have relied on to fill the hole in our hearts fails all we have left is God. Ultimately that is the point.
Breaking is normal and necessary
International speaker, writer, coach, and facilitator Heather Plett teaches on Holding Space – the practice of supporting people without judgement, without the need to fix them and without attempting to determine the outcome of their journey. Her approach honours and normalises the experience of brokenness. She centres the metaphor of the chrysalis in her work and calls this liminal space: the in-between space where deep transformation happens.,  This dark space for wrestling and unravelling reflects a pattern clearly articulated by Jesus: ‘…unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’ (John 12:24, ISV).
People who embrace the 12 Steps understand that hitting rock bottom is the first step towards a deep spiritual awakening. A caterpillar must unravel to transform into a butterfly. A seed needs to enter liminal space to yield a crop. Every communion service reminds us Christ’s body had to be broken to pave the way for our saving metamorphosis.
Yet rather than embrace this paradigm we resist God’s call to fall to the ground and die. Though we fervently invite God to break us our theology does not tend to support us to embrace the subsequent unravelling. Instead, when we experience caterpillar soup, many of us leap to the conclusion that both ourselves and our brokenness are unacceptable to God; that our unravelling is the result of lack of faith or unforgiven sin; or that any brokenness is evidence we have strayed from God’s intended path. When we feel broken it seems we readily assume our faith must be broken.
Having preached for full surrender we typically urge people to avoid caterpillar soup and the process of working through and out of it. Rather than holding space for brokenness we attempt to quickly replace despair with praise, doubt with faith, and sadness with joy. We do not help anyone to flourish when we counsel broken people to claim victory before they have fully processed their pain and understood what it is teaching them. If we try to help a butterfly break out of its cocoon early we rob it of the required final struggle. Unless it bursts out of the cocoon unaided it will not fully develop its wings and will emerge crippled. In the same way, when we seek to minimise another’s pain we prevent them from experiencing a necessary wrestling. They will emerge from their caterpillar soup less than whole.
There is no judgement from the Father as he embraces and holds space for his once lost son. The dad recognised his son’s need to explore how to truly satisfy the deepest cry of his heart. The dad knew transformation involved the son uncovering his flawed human nature and the limits of his own resourcefulness; he understood his son must work through liminal space in order to flourish. Jesus created the character of the Prodigal to teach us that disintegrating into caterpillar soup is both normal and necessary.
Even great faith heroes break
Even our greatest faith heroes broke down into caterpillar soup. Many began with an intuitive knowledge of their vocational calling yet, as with the Older Son, this was not enough. They needed to experience brokenness to strip away any reliance on their own capacity and replace this with an utter dependence on God as their source. This transformative process empowered them to then step into their vocational calling in truly extraordinary ways.
Moses initially responded to a call to free his people from the injustices of slavery with murderous rage. This personal failure propelled him into the desert where he developed the character required to appropriately fulfil his calling. Joseph believed he was called to lead but this fuelled his ego so much his irritated his brothers sold him into slavery. Years in prison stripped him of his self-importance and he emerged as a wise and exceptional leader. God imposed darkness on Saul as a means of transforming his zeal for spiritual truth from persecution of Jesus to proclamation of Jesus as Lord. In Joseph Campbell’s study of the Hero’s journey the same principle is affirmed – to fully embrace a personal calling every hero must leave their old life and overcome personal challenge or failure in order to achieve great things.
Not everyone can answer the call
The seemingly perfect Older Son could not bring himself to join the party reinstating his brother as son and heir. Knowing he was also a lost son the Father went searching for him. Jesus used a very strong word to convey just how earnestly the Father pleaded with, or entreated him, to join the celebrations. The invitation to the party was really an invitation to intimacy with the Father. However, to accept the invitation the Older Son needed to face the hardness of his heart – the very thing which prevented deep connection with the Father and his brother. Although the Older Son faithfully expressed a vocational calling he had not ever failed. He had not unravelled enough to experience being embraced by grace. Instead he complained that he had not been given ‘even a young goat’ (Luke 15:29) - though as the oldest son of a Jewish father he would have received a double portion of the inheritance. Without a close connection to his Father’s heart he had not taken hold of all the Father had already lavished upon him. And without personally experiencing grace he was unable to extend grace to his brother.
Just as the Older Son was not yet able to fly free there were caterpillars in Christchurch which did not emerge as butterflies. Unfortunately, eighty hungry caterpillars consumed the swan plant ahead of them, depriving them of what they needed to transform and flourish. Sadly, the truth is, not everyone appears able to flourish. Some of us are so under-resourced in our early years we haven’t (yet) emerged as butterflies. Or our hearts remain hard, usually when there has been very profound wounding. For others painful experiences persist: terminal cancer, dementia and unrelenting mental health issues are just some examples of situations which have no victorious ending. This reality appears in stark contrast to the hope of transformation offered by the caterpillar metaphor. Regrettably, life cannot always be bundled up into a neat package with a pretty bow. We need a theology which simply allows us to hold space for each other when we do not (yet) have the resilience to face entering caterpillar soup or we can’t (yet) muster the resources to push our way through it. When our struggles are unrelenting wise teachers such a Pauline Boss understand that so long as we experience meaning somewhere in our lives it is possible to bear even unresolved pain. Knowing our pain is safely contained in God’s arms helps to provide the courage to do so.
The Prodigal Son story is actually about connection: connection to our broken self, connection to the whenua (land), to whānau (family), to God and to the true identity God longs to bestow on us. Lisa Sharon Harper’s book The Very Good Gospel unpacks how right from the Garden of Eden we lost these connections. She suggests humanity’s greatest sin has always been separation – from God, each other and the whenua. Harper reflects, ‘In Hebrew culture, sin had more to do with the break in relationships than with individual imperfection.’ Following extensive research Johann Hari concluded, ‘So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection’. Jesus recognised this when he said, ‘Truly, I tell all of you emphatically, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone’ (John 12:24, ISV). Separated.
The artist Rembrandt, who had been a bit of a prodigal himself, painted an incredibly insightful interpretation of the Prodigal Parable in his wiser later years of life. In his painting The Return of the Prodigal Son the Father holds the Prodigal firmly against his chest. I am struck by how the Prodigal is held so close he can hear the heartbeat of his Father. Here the Prodigal experienced the very heart of the Father towards his true and flawed self. Here his caterpillar soup was embraced and contained in the arms of his Father. The story demonstrates that the Father is only able to bestow the son’s full identity as son and heir once his journey emptied him of all alternative sources of identity. Through this vulnerable process the Prodigal found the deep connection his imaginal cells had hoped and searched for.
Sadly, the Older Son remained disconnected on many levels: he was disconnected from the rage and resentment within his own heart; his description of his role as ‘slaving for you’ (Luke 15:29) suggests a disconnection from his vocation, and a disconnection from the land he was called to work; he was not well connected to the heart of his Father and so he had not appropriated the generous inheritance already bestowed upon him. And without an experience of grace he could not graciously connect with his brother. If our greatest sin is separation it is the Older Son and not the Prodigal who is the sinner in this story.
The opposite of both addiction and separation is connection. Ultimately the opposite of all sin is connection – the experience of being fully connected to our true humanity, each other, the whenua and God. Such wholistic relationships connect us with the very heart of God. This level of connection removes our need to seek out substitutes and completely fills the hole in our souls. Rembrandt profoundly portrayed how we are set free to flourish as our broken selves are held against the very heartbeat of God.
Jesus used the imagery of a seed and a Prodigal to normalise the process of falling and failing. By overlaying these images with a caterpillar’s journey we see that disintegrating into caterpillar soup is actually necessary. Brokenness empties us of all sources of identity other than God, freeing us to receive God’s lavish love and intended identity for us. This vulnerable encounter creates the deep connection required to heal not just our hearts but our wider relationships. Despite our resistance Jesus was emphatic: in order to flourish we must first fall apart.
Bible verses are from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.
Boss, Pauline. “The Myth of Closure.” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being. Last updated December 13, 2018. Audio, 51:52.
Brown, Brené. Rising Strong. London: Vermillion, 2015.
Cammock, Peter. The Spirit of Leadership: Building the Personal Foundations of Extraordinary Leadership. Christchurch: Leadership Press Ltd, 2008.
Hari, Johann. Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Hari, Johann. “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”. Accessed August 4, 2019. Ted Talk, 14:35.
Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2018.
Harper, Lisa Sharon. The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong can be Made Right. New York: WaterBrook, 2016. Kobo.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of The Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994.
Plett, Heather. “Holding Liminal Space.” August 22, 2016. https://heatherplett.com/2016/08/holding-liminal-space/.
Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 67
 Peter Cammock, The Spirit of Leadership: Building the Personal Foundations of Extraordinary Leadership. (Christchurch: Leadership Press Ltd, 2008), 55
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 113
 Pauline Boss, “The Myth of Closure,” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being, last updated December 13, 2018, podcast, 34:12, https://onbeing.org/programs/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure-dec2018/
 Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong can be Made Right” (New York: WaterBrook, 2016), chap 12, Kobo