We offer a story from one of our last year’s pilgrims, Carol Flake Chapman.
A Butterfly Story, Part 3: Mysteries of the Returning Soul
By Carol Flake Chapman
Last October I traveled to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, for a spiritual retreat that was centered around Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which coincides with Halloween and All Saints Day on the Anglo calendar. In Mexico, the Dia de los Muertos is not a day of mourning or scary haunting but a bittersweet celebration of the dead, as though they awake from their eternal sleep for a day each year to enjoy a fiesta with loved ones. It is also the day that the monarch butterflies begin arriving from points north at their sanctuaries in the mountains of Michoacan, bringing with them, according to Mexican legend, the souls of the departed.
During the retreat, we spent our days at the pyramids and the evenings at a simple but beautiful lodge nearby called the Dreaming House, owned by a Toltec craftsman in whose family the land had been for generations. From the balcony in front of my room, I could see the top of the imposing Pyramid of the Sun, the world’s third largest, and the occasional hot-air balloon transporting sightseers around the ruins of the mysterious civilization that has been compared to that of ancient Rome. We would be climbing the huge pyramid on the last day of the retreat, after working our way from the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the mythic winged snake, through the plazas of earth, water, air and fire, to the Pyramid of the Moon. In each stage of our journey we would be facing our fears and sorrows and letting go of the things that didn’t serve us.
On the afternoon of the 31st, in preparation for building our individual ofrendas, or altars, in honor of our departed loved ones, we took a bus to a small village known for its special Day of the Dead market, where vendors sold all manner of memento mori, including the usual sugar calaveras (skulls) and special bread called pan de muerto that local people favored. There were chocolate skulls, miniature caskets decorated like birthday cakes, and whimsical calacas (skeletons) in various lifelike poses. Children were roaming freely around the market, sampling the macabre sweets, and I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a culture where death and the dead were not something to be feared and avoided but accepted as a natural part of life.
Early that evening we prepared our ofrendas in a large room in the Dreaming House, and all of us contributed to a path of marigolds leading out to the street that would point out a way for the departed to find our altars. On my altar I placed a photo of my late husband Gary in one of his favorite Italian suits and added a pair of earphones that Gary had used with his iPhone, not just for the music but to quiet the tinnitus that had tormented him for years. I added a skeleton band of mariachi musicians, as we had both loved mariachi bands.
Many of us left our altars when we heard a parade passing by, and we joined in a festive group of children in costumes, their faces painted like calaveras, who were dancing down the street. They were celebrating the first part of the Day of the Dead, the Dia de los Angelitos, commemorating departed children with a showing of high spirits and mischief.
We gradually trickled back to our altars, one by one, a process that would continue all night, as some wanted to keep vigil until dawn. For a time, I was alone in the room, and I lit a candle and sat, cross-legged, in front of the altar I had made for Gary, not shedding tears but aching with sadness and longing as I looked at his picture. After a while, the picture seemed to waver and change, and I blinked my eyes as the image appeared to morph into a pyramid, with Gary’s tie becoming a pathway to the top, where his smilling face gleamed over the pyramid like the sun. I supposed I was anticipating the next day, when we would be climbing the Pyramid of the Sun in the final ritual that we had been working up to all week. As I looked at the photographic image shimmering in candlelight on the altar I had built of memories and reminders, I had a sudden feeling that I would see Gary the next day at the top of the huge pyramid, however implausible that would be.
The next morning we began our journey at the partially restored structure known as the Palace of the Butterflies, where Toltec priests had lived and presided over the rites of initiation into the sacred mysteries of their civilization. The name Teotihuacan, I was reminded, has been translated as the place where humans become divine, and butterflies appear to have played a symbolic role in that transformation. Butterflies even appear on the shields of warriors.
We then gathered at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun to prepare for a climb that would be arduous for many. We made our way up the pyramid in stages, pausing at each level to circle in the pyramid in a meditative walk. When we reached the top, everyone gathered in a circle in a shared celebration of joy, but I quietly slipped away to the edge of the pyramid, where I sat down, feeling despondent and alone. Catching a movement from the corner of my eye, I saw a butterfly fluttering near me, and without thinking, I reached out my left hand, and the butterfly landed on my palm. It was not a monarch, I knew, as the monarchs would have begun arriving this very day at their sanctuaries far away in the mountains of Michoacan.
This was a rather plain patch butterfly, black with white spots and small smudges of orange, though I didn’t know which of the various species of patch butterflies it was. It remained in my palm quietly for a moment and then began to move its wings slowly back and forth, back and forth. “Oh my God,” said a startled friend who had sat down nearby, feeling overwhelmed by her own inner currents of grief. “Oh my God,” she repeated, looking on in wonder as the butterfly continued to move its wings. Hundreds of thousands of wings, I had learned, make a susurrus, a sound like the heavens cracking open, but these wings were silent.
The little butterfly stayed there in my hand for several moments as my tears began to fall, and all time and all space seemed to collapse into the motion of its wings, which kept moving like the breath of the cosmos. Accept and give, accept and give. Life and death, death and life. Gary has never left you, said the wings. He is not here, yet he is here.
My butterfly journey that had begun with the migratory monarchs in the sanctuary of Cerro Pelon so many years ago had come full circle with this ragged-looking lone emissary bringing me a message of improbable hope on this remote pinnacle atop a ruined civilization, reminding me of my everlasting connection to a wondrous and mysterious natural world where the souls of the departed return on the wings of butterflies.
And so for all of you who have lost a loved one or who have suffered a grievous wound, I wish you the gift of a butterfly fluttering in the path in front of you, bringing you the gift of connection to the living, breathing soul of the world. The gift is free.