Sunday, 13 June 2010


"Papillon! Papillon!"...."Butterfly! Butterfly!"

We all thought the world had gone mad when our quiet and seemingly respectable guest stepped out of his room, dressed in his hunting attire and for hunting what? Not foxes or elephants, but butterflies!!!

This all happened at our Dominican priory in Grenada...a charming place with flower garden and wasteland. This man, this zealot, this fanatic charged up slopes and through bushes, waving his net on a long pole, gleefully yelling, "Papillon! Papillon!" -"Butterfly! Butterfly!" as he swooped down triumphantly netting an exotic butterfly...not because he hated it, just the opposite.

He admired its beauty, its rarity and wanted to preserve it so that he could show it to others. This collector of butterflies surged forward, clambered and thrust himself with the enthusiasm of a committed collector. and, as with all true collectors, the hunting, acquiring or even the capturing are far more to be treasured than the possessing.

As a schoolboy I was an avid collector of stamps. The satisfaction came in swapping stamps with friends with all the haggling and bargaining this involved. There's nothing very clever in having enough money to buy what you fancy from the store that you are certain will have it in stock!

What a tale 'Monsieur Papillon' would have to tell when he proudly showed off to his friends and family the new acquisition to his collection from the glorious islands in the Caribbean. He might have had a thing to say about us Dominicans, as we quizzed him about his exploits in building up his collection! His butterflies would speak more eloquently about the kind of vacation he had had than any souvenir that a tourist could purchase from a road-side vendor.

And this brings me to my fascination at the way Jesus drew upon the symbolism we attach to things to enable Him, with masterful ingenuity, to wriggle out of a catch-question that had been put to Him. "Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" "Should we pay," yes or no?" Pay to Caesar, the much resented imperial master of the Land God had given to His people.
Jesus asked for a coin to be given Him. No doubt someone in the crowd dipped his hand into his pocket or purse and brought out a collection of coins -just as I have to do when I'm paying my bus fare. He then asked them whose face was depicted there, and whose name? Caesar's of course! And everyone knew the significance of the name...that of the Roman Emperor. All were aware of the significance of the coin -paying taxes to the much loathed Roman Empire.

Every time these coins were used for the payment of taxes they carried a message..not simply conveying a piece of information about their commercial value...but a distasteful reminder of the humiliating situation of the people subjected to foreigners.

I love the way Jesus was able to put a spiritual, theological, and very pragmatic spin to the significance of this common coin. "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

To me it is very, very interesting that in the early years of Christianity people were faulted for having statues and paintings of religious persons or events...faulted because they savoured of idolatry. Even in our own day there are those who make this accusation. According to this mentality these images are dead. They are meaningless. They are misleading. It's a waste of time to pay them any attention.

Nowadays, those who display religious images in public places are faulted because their images are alleged to be saying too much, conveying a weighty meaning that is offensive to some. I think of the unspoken eloquence of the crucifix or the crib, a picture of the Madonna. They bear witness to a faith that people cherish, and even die for...a faith that others abhor.

Monsieur Papillon, Butterfly Man, you crazy, beloved collector, you have brought me to appreciate what is so helpfully present to us in symbols. They point us towards mysteries too vast, too sacred for us to be able to grasp with our senses or express with words. You have been for me mywaygodsway of coming to some understanding of the present controversy between those who insist on displaying symbols of their religious convictions, while others resort to every means to prevent this.

Peter O.P.

Next week Dinosaurs and Old Fossils will help Fr. Isidore meet God.

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