by Fr. Jonathan Atchley
If you already know it, love is the only payment one can return for love. And if you don't yet know it, you will learn.
That is why I wish to share my story of two happily blessed children.
Once upon a time, a brother and sister were playing in a field of rolling hills and dancing flowers.
It was a lovely place to play in the late summer. There was no school for now, and their chores were done. All they cared for was to soak in the beauty of the flowers and the warmth of the sun.
While they were playing in this pretty field, the children noticed a single butterfly crest the hill and fly down a grassy slope among the flowers nearby. To them, it seemed the king or queen of all butterflies! For besides being as large as their hands were wide, it fluttered by on strikingly pretty, reddish-brown wings, which were bordered in black and dotted with white, as though wearing a tuxedo. This must be a Monarch butterfly they learned about in school. Every year it makes a strong and fearless two-thousand mile journey from the north, through California and down into Mexico.
The children wanted to get to know and love this beautiful creature. They skipped, and ran, and finally caught up with the marvelous butterfly.
"How wonderful!" "What fantastic luck!" They shouted aloud for the flowers and hills to rejoice with them when they caught the Monarch in a glass jar.
"How beautiful its wings, how lovely its face, how splendid its colors!" they exclaimed to one another.
However, the poor butterfly did not look so happy. In fact, its wings drooped and its head bowed.
The children tried to feed their butterfly, but it would not eat. They tied a string carefully around it, but it would not fly. Finally, they understood that their butterfly could not be happy without its freedom. “Certainly it would be an insult to keep the King or Queen a prisoner,” one whispered to the other. And with that, the children let their hard-won prize go. They knew they would not want to live in a jar or be tied to a string, and so it seemed only fair they should treat the royal butterfly with the same respect.
Up and out, finally free! The Monarch fluttered up in the air, circled above the children for a breath-taking moment as though to thank them, and then gracefully flitted away back over the hill from where it came.
The boy and girl were happy for their friend. They were good children, gentle and kind, who learned from their mother to treat even the simplest creature as they would want others to treat them. They did what they knew was right. But for a long while after, they continued to share how for a timeless moment the Monarch was their friend.
While brother and sister talked, the shadows of nearby trees slowly reached out long and twisty fingers that frightened the two into remembering their mother’s warning: there is a dangerous wolf that comes out late in the day, to eat children who were not already safely close to home.
Up on their feet, they were ready to run for home, when--oh, no! A large mouth with very sharp teeth appeared from behind a nearby tree. Growling in a hungry and challenging way, the beast stood menacingly before them.
“What luck!” snarled the wolf. “Here are two delicious-looking children. I should take them home with me, but I really can’t wait. I’d rather eat them here.”
While the wolf was deciding which of the two would be more savory, a lone butterfly fluttered up and over the hill.
Its wings were a royal orange, yellow and black. It was the Monarch butterfly!
Toward the children it flew, courageous and brave. Yet, wondrously, it was not alone: with it came a hundred . . . a thousand . . . a million butterflies, floating, fluttering, gliding and waving about in the wind around the wolf.
They were coming to free the desperate children!
It was not long before the overwhelming cloud of colors and dizzying motion proved too much for the wolf. Confused and frightened from its meal, the beast reluctantly slunk away.
But the beautiful butterflies remained. Thousands and tens of thousands of kings and queens surrounded the children, and in a very dignified manner, escorted brother and sister safely away from the shadows of the darkening valley.
To anyone looking on, it appeared as though red and brown ocean waves carried the children forward like billowy clouds moving in a gentle summer breeze. But for the children, surrounded by beauty and nature's gift of friendship, it felt like love was guiding them home.
Many years later, when the brother and sister each had their own families, they would share the story of how two children had met and made friends with innumerable royal butterflies. But in every telling, they also made sure to recount with their own children the most important lesson that any adult or child, queen or king could learn, or should ever have to remember: the only way to repay love. . . is with love.