How my Story “The Rainbow Butterfly” Came to Be

creatures coverThe writing of my story “The Rainbow Butterfly” has a complicated history. My first inspiration came from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The Artist of the Beautiful.” In it, a craftsman creates a very delicate and beautiful butterfly that has a numinous quality. In Hawthorne’s grim imagination, this fragile work falls victim to insensitive people.

In my imagination, this image got hooked into an idea of a story about a town at war with another town to the extent that the war defined the town’s life at every level.  An underground group, devoted to finding an alternative to war, was engaged in a project of constructing a rainbow butterfly that would take on a transcendent life of its own. The project succeeded and the rainbow received a mixed reception depending on the dispositions of each person.

A few years later, at the time of the civil wars in the Balkan Peninsula, I got the idea of writing a story about a city in the state of civil war where occupation of the city was roughly divided between each side. The children too young for combat (starting at age twelve) spent their time getting a piecemeal education with the result they learned of a possible to stop the war, but one requiring self-sacrifice. (I used the Welsh legend of the black cauldron that turns dead bodies into zombies until a live person jumps into the cauldron voluntarily which breaks the cauldron. As you can guess, it was a pretty dark story.

Over time, I continued to feel there was a lot to like in both stories but at the same time some fundamental problems that kept either of them from working. After puzzling about this for some time, I got an inspiration to take elements of each story and create a whole new story using the same themes about war. The result was “The Rainbow Butterfly.” Basically, it combines the inter-city civil war scenario with that of an underground resistance group seeking peace. This time, there was no attempt to create the rainbow butterfly; finding a cup that had the butterfly’s life in it was enough.

I created a whole new character as the protagonist who tells the story, twelve-year-old Darren Forty-Third. His vocabulary is limited because linguistic skills are limited to the pragmatics of perpetual war. That already tells the reader a lot about what a culture is like when it is so totally focused on war.

Want to see how Darren and his friends and the Rainbow Butterfly fare? Read the story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing.

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God Knows All About Unicorns

Early in my monastic life, when I wanted to know everything, I read the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a thinker who knew everything, or seemed to. Many of Thomas’ insights and speculations continue to nourish me. The insight that I dwell upon and dwell in more than any other comes in Question 14, article 9.

Thomas has been enumerating what God knows, which, not surprisingly turns out to be everything. In article 9, however, Thomas poses the question of whether God knows everything that has never existed, does not presently exist, and never will exist. One might think that this, at least would stump God, but Thomas blithely insists that God knows these things as well. Huh?

Basically, Thomas says that God knows everything that could exist. That includes everything which God does bring into being as well as everything which God does not bring into being. This is an important point. We take our own existence and the existence of the things in the world for granted. God takes nothing for granted. God chooses some things to exist out of an infinitude of possibilities.

So what about unicorns and all else that allegedly do not exist? What does God have against them that God did not bring them into being? The answer is God has nothing against anything. The deeper answer is that God leaves many things to our imaginations. We can’t imagine horses; they are already here. But we can imagine unicorns and dragons and creatures from other planets that may or may not exist. What I find so awesome about Thomas’ insight is that God invites us to enter into God’s imagination to glimpse a few of the infinite number of beings that will never exist. God encourages us to welcome into this life many creatures we otherwise would never see and get to know. Not only do we get to pet the cats who live at our monastery, but we get to ride dragons through the air!

It is because God has invited me into small visions of the divine  imagination that I can introduce you to Korniel, Pandara, Merendael, and many others. If you wish to meet them for yourself, you can read Creatures We Dream of Knowing and From Beyond to Here. Knowing them has enriched my life. I hope it will enrich yours as well.

Fantasy Literature & Theology

I have just added an article called Baptizing the Imagination that was originally published in the Abbey Letter of St. Gregory’s Abbey. Here, you can read about my reflections on the theological dimensions of fantasy literature with comments on several important writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Helpful background to Creatures We Dream of Knowing & From Beyond to Here.

Welcoming the Strange Stranger

We all become at least slightly disoriented when we meet a person who is different. This disorientation is often mixed with fear and distaste, maybe even disgust. If we encounter someone really strange, such as a visitor from another planet or a ghost, our fear can easily turn into panic. Although most daily strange encounters are less drastic than that, we often find that we react with fear and disgust before thinking rationally when meeting even a mildly strange person. If we get to know the stranger, however, we often find that person to be a gift to us.

Fantasy stories give us the opportunity meet with the strange, the weird and the frightening and learn to overcome our fears enough to see the potential giftedness in these encounters. In “Merendael’s Gift,” the opening story in the collection From Beyond to Here, a boy named Eddie encounters a very strange creature with an elusive and frightening appearance, yet the creature communicates to Eddie a desire to give a gift that is very important. As the story unfolds, Eddie has deal with his fears, not only of the creature, whose name is Merendael, but of losing his social standing with the boys he hangs out with. Each story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing brings together one or more allegedly fantastical creature and one or more children. In “The White Tree,” for example, a mysterious white plant growing quickly where four backyards meet frightens some people but offers great musical gifts to those open to receive them.

As a Benedictine monk, I follow a monastic rule that enjoins hospitality as a major apostolate, second only to the ministry of prayer. We are constantly challenged to open our hearts to strangers, some of whom seem strange and some of whom really are difficult to deal with. Hospitality, of course, is a Christian virtue. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, like Abraham, we may entertain angels unawares when we offer hospitality. I discuss Benedictine hospitality in my book Tools for Peace.

The story “Merendael’s Gift” and the others in From Beyond to Here and in Creatures We Dream of Knowing can help readers of all ages reflect on the challenge of welcoming the truly strange stranger into our lives and learn what God would have us learn from them.