Monday, October 12, 2015


Years ago, Ruth Lefkovits, my good friend who was a Reformed Jew, shared with me a poem written by Pavel Friedmann, a 21-year old man who was born in Prague and died during the Holocaust. The poem dealt with the last butterfly he saw while imprisoned at Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Friedmann later died at Auschwitz in 1944. I thought about this poem last week when I attended a Friday evening candlelight service entitled “The Wonder of Butterflies” at the Convent of St. Mary, Sewanee. Although Friedmann’s poem was not among the poetry read, I left a copy of it with a friend who read a Native-American story during the service.

“The Butterfly” is preserved in the National Jewish Museum as a typewritten copy on thin paper in the collection of poetry by Friedmann and is dated June 4, 1942. A few lines from the poem will suffice for readers to see why any mention of literature about butterflies would bring up an image of Friedmann’s butterfly: “The last, the very last,/So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow./Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing/against a white stone…/Such, such a yellow/Is carried lightly ‘way up high./It went away I’m sure because it wished to/kiss the world goodbye…/The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut candles in the court./Only I never saw another butterfly…That butterfly was the last one…”

The uplifting butterfly service at the Convent contrasted with the stark poem that I’ve just quoted and was probably one of the best Friday evening experiences I’ve enjoyed in quite a spell. Sr. Madeleine Mary had engaged a quartet to play in the background as we entered the candle-lit chapel, and they played at intervals during the hour-long service. In silence, we enjoyed a video presentation of butterflies Sr. Madeleine Mary had photographed, followed by a lecture that focused on the importance of butterflies as pollinators. Sr. Madeleine Mary emphasized the decline of the monarch butterflies, including “the destruction of breeding habitats in the U.S. through use of toxic herbicides and genetically-engineered crops and illegal logging in Mexico’s fir forests, as well as ecotourism, extreme weather, and diversion of water.” An arresting quote by Paul Erlich on the back of the program folder underlined Sr. Madeleine Mary’s reflection: “The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can effect climate changes on the other side of the planet.”

Sister Elizabeth read three poems about butterflies, including one about the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, and the poems, as I said, were in sharp contrast to the stark one written by the poet who was a victim of the Holocaust. One of the highlights of the service was a reading by Alice Ramsey, a story entitled “Butterflies – Papago” by Buck Conner, a member of the Turtle Clan of Lenni Lenape Society, a Native-American Society commonly known as the “Keepers of the Earth.” Alice, reading in her soft Alabama drawl, told the story of how the Creator gave butterflies their myriad colors and, at one time, had given them the voices of songbirds, but birds complained that their own singing should be exclusive, and the Creator had already given the butterflies these brilliant wing colors and patterns… so the Creator took away the butterfly’s voices. But what short-lived creature with such fluttering beauty needs a voice?  

At intervals, the quartet played classical music that helped us come down a tone or two, followed by either prayers or hymns. Programs of this quality were initiated last year at the Convent, and they focus on raising spiritual consciousness about environmental concerns and the natural world through music, prayer, meditations, and visual presentations.

After 30 minutes or so of engagement in the service, I got very quiet inside and realized that I was again in the “thin place” that is the Convent of St. Mary and that I’m blessed to live and worship in this sacred space part of every year.

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