Picture in your mind dozens of caterpillars squirming inside cobwebbed sacks. Add these grey balls of entangled creatures down the length of a country path, drape them over the hedges and trees, so that you have the makings of a screen set for something a little sinister. Not exactly a go-to image for the glory of God in creation. Yet discovering this phenomenon has been as meaningful as a God-breathed sunset or a clear blue sea (though the realization did take time).
It all started well enough.
The family were in a good mood, and at 8.00 p.m. with the sun still shining, set out with me for another evening walk. There was skipping – no Mum, you skip like this – laughter that causes belly ache – and happy banter, with mock accents from the girls for most of the walk.
A perfect summer evening out in the woods, when the sunlight comes in lower through the trees. As it filters through the new-green leaves, the space feels more enclosed and intimate, as do our spaces at home when lit by side-lamps, rather than bright bulbs from the ceiling.
It was half-way round on our usual circuit we spotted them, for we notice different things as the sun hits them.
‘Why are there so many cobwebs along here? What’s going on?’
Maddy took a stick to one to try to let the creatures escape, as we thought an industrious spider had trapped a nest of caterpillars. But soon we discovered these cobwebbed parcels right the way along the hedge, at eye level in the blackthorn and up higher in the taller hawthorn trees.
I couldn’t answer Maddy’s question, and had to look it up when we were home. ‘A hedge covered with cobwebs at the start of June’ I googled. Up popped pictures of trees and shrubs that are stripped bare beneath the cobwebs, apparently decimated. Like many things unexplained, people are describing the overall effect as ‘eerie’ and ‘ghostly’. Yet as I read, I discovered they are simply webs spun by the larvae of ermine moths. And the trees usually recover.
Ermine moths then. I looked these up too and discovered they are quite beautiful. They are, in fact, striking, with white bodies speckled like close, ermine fur, and a white, overly-fluffed head, with a furry hood in the same fabric. A bizarre dressing-up outfit for a humble moth.
So what do I take from this image? How does it point me to the Creator and bring hope and reassurance?
At first there was the shock of finding something so unattractive when we were having such a happy time. A bit like the dawning of lockdown for some, as we were stopped in our tracks, downing tools of that which felt purposeful and worthwhile. The caterpillars look trapped rather than preserved as they were, and isn’t that often our reaction, to see the worst in things?
As we walked on and before I’d understood what was happening, the first thing that occurred to me was that the lockdown has caused unhelpful fears in many of us. Perhaps we carry our own squirming bundles. We may wonder what will break out from our time under wraps – what the outcome will be for this situation or that. What exactly will emerge, in us or society at large?
The reality is those sacks in the hedgerows are works in progress, and so are we. Ermine is a symbol of purity – and perhaps we are going through a time of purification. Surely, with God’s help, this can be a positive time. As Christians, we can expect to emerge transformed, having grown in ways we wouldn’t have looked for, but will one day appreciate. If we are serious about our faith, we will be developing as we are hidden away like this, for we’re not hidden from God, and are now able to focus on what really matters. For some, it’s a deliberate time of preparation for flight, for others it’s just the daily faithful, devotional routine of prayer, Bible reading and drawing close.
The moths will take flight in July or August, and what else will be launched by then, in us, in society and in the church? He wants us to keep on doing what we’re doing if we’re seeking and trying to honour him.
And the blessing is coming.
Lyrics from Michael W Smith’s version of Waymaker, a song that’s constantly on my mind these days:
‘Even when I don’t see it, You’re working
Even when I don’t feel it, You’re working
You never stop, you never stop working
You never stop, you never stop working
That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18