The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Through a frayed yellow curtain, a wan glow flows towards a dimmed body on a hospital bed.  His brown curls remain in place from the careful brushing of a nurse hours before in the evening dusk.  His limbs are withered and limp; his hands curled and brittle like autumn leaves; his whole body intractably divorced from the turns and twists of his active mind longing to move.  His lips strain to lisp a word, any word, but they are like a toddler in an apoplectic tantrum, fixed and firm against even the most loving parental request to move.  As he awakes, these thoughts stagger then run across his mind:  

My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving-bell holds my whole body prisoner… [Blinking] my left eyelid is my only means of communication...[As I awake] my cocoon becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.  There is so much to do.  You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.  You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face.  (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, pp. 11-13)

This is my retelling of the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby – Jean-Do to his friends – the former editor-in-chief of the glamorous French Elle magazine.  After suffering a massive stroke, Jean Do becomes permanently paralysed and speechless, locked-in his own body.  Yet, even in the darkest place imaginable – trapped in his body as if in an invisible diving-bell – Jean-Do finds light and life.  Such light and life streams into his prison through his imagination: his mind emerges out of a dark chrysalis and takes to flight like a butterfly.   Able to move only one eyelid, Jean-Do ‘dictates’ the story of his life.  At a languid pulse of one word every two minutes, over 200,000 blinks slowly and surely churn out 139 pages.  Slowly, painstakingly, he dictates an acclaimed bestseller: Le scaphandre et le papillon, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly.  It is a remarkable book about the triumph of the human spirit.

            Lent has within it both a diving bell and a butterfly and, much like Jean Do’s story, asks us to see the light within the darkness.  What does that look like in this season?
Well, Lent takes us at first into what seems like a dark place like Jean-Do’s diving bell, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness as Joel phrases it (2.2).  The diving bell of Lent is, of course, the frailty and mortality of our bodies.  We will die, all of us, and we are trapped by death: remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return, as this service puts it.  Death terrifies, it remains inscrutable, cruel, and impartial: in Ecclesiastes we hear the sobering reality that, in death, as are the good, so are the sinners…[This] is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone (Ecclesiates 9. 2-3).  Lent starts us off at our end.  It is a hard reality, a reminder that we are, in some sense, trapped in a seemingly inescapable diving bell, the transience of our bodies.  We are paralysed and suffocated by the death of our loved ones and by our own fate.

Yet, Lent also shines out a light, the beatings of a butterfly which can give us new life, just as Jean-Do’s imagination gives him a new lease and purpose. The bright butterfly wings of Lent may seem hard to see in the initial darkness, just as Jean-Do feels trapped in the diving bell at times.  But Lent calls us, draws us out of our dark chrysalis, to a renewing of purpose, a fresh lease of life, and a different way of being in the world.  Three practices mark the character of Lent as an intentional season of transformation.  First, to fast on occasion from food or drink: this makes us aware of our bodies and thankful to God for life.  Second, to give alms: such charitable habits give us eyes to see our good as fundamentally connected to the well-being of others made in God’s image.  Finally, to pray: in prayer we use our minds to see the world as drawn up into the love of God, and we also imagine how our desires can meet the deepest needs of that world.  Through these three practices, through acts of worship and discipline, we are drawn into the life of Christ himself.  We can imaginatively see ourselves and our world as following Christ; we can hear the echo of our hardships and hopes both in his historical life as he lives, dies, and is resurrected, and also in his presence still with us, even here and now.  

As painstaking as Jean-Do’s condition was, he found a new and beautiful way of being through his imagination and he records this long incubation and journey in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  Christ too takes the hard road of forty days in the wilderness and is faced with his darkest desires, even the desire to avoid death.  Yet he comes out of this season of trial renewed, more alive than before, and full of God.  Out of a diving bell flies a butterfly in both stories.  So too, in these forty days of Lent, can we emerge, transformed where we were once trapped, renewed where we were once terrified, and alive where perhaps we were once dead.  May we be open to the change God promises to make in us.  Amen.