moth – (noun) a chiefly nocturnal insect, with two broad wings covered in microscopic scales, a stout body, and drab coloration.
“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
Moths seem to have a strange fate – they are designed for life in the night, but they constantly seek the light.
This dedicated pursuit of light typically carries a negative connotation, not the least thanks to the common idiom “like a moth to a flame,” used to describe an unwavering, but self-destructive, attraction. There is no scientific certainty why moths fly towards artificial lights. Some insects direct themselves by flying at a constant angle relative to a distant light source (like the moon), a behavior called “transverse orientation.” Entomologists theorize that when a moth flies by an artificial light (often brighter than the moon), it becomes confused, changes its angle of orientation, and ends up flying towards it. However, this theory has holes – this behavior is typically only utilized by species that migrate.
Scientific theory and disapproving idiom aside, their design as (typically) nocturnal, but ever-eager for light, seems relatable for our circumstances as human. Whatever belief system (or non-belief system) you identify (or don’t identify) with most, I feel we’ve all, at one time or another, felt a longing for something that wasn’t quite tangible, something present that we couldn’t put into words – a seeking for an elsewhere or beyond. The German word fernweh has no perfect English translation, but some have defined it as “farsickness” or “a consuming longing to be somewhere you’ve never been, an aching to be in a distant an unknown land.” The moth’s encounters with light, when they habitat the night, seem to be tapping into this longing for another realm, an unknown land of light. Furthermore, the moth’s habitation of the night, with these eager swerves directly to light, seems illustrative of the sentiment expressed here:
“My soul is from elsewhere, I am sure of that, and I intend to end up there.” (Rumi)
It is fitting, then, that Greeks referred to moths by the term psyche – the same they used for “soul” or “spirit”. If we think of moths this way, as a metaphor for soul, then their hunger for light is something for our relation and emulation. We too, as humans, in our mortality, are creatures dwelling in a world that does not quite contain all that our soul longs for. There seems to be glimpses of it – brief breaths, temporary tastes – and this stirs something in us. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to describe. But, it awakens a longing for something beyond.
The moth is a humble backdrop creature. Most have muted colors – the typical moth holds no handle to the technicolor glory of the butterfly. I like that about moths. They are nearly forgotten, and seemingly plain before you consider them more fully. They are delicate, wispy things. If you touch its wings, tiny scales come off on your fingertips, which look like powder. This gives the impression that they are made of dust – impermanent and barely there.
“For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to the God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
And, indeed, moths are short lived. Some will fly for as long as a month, but most only live a few days, and some just a single day. This makes the moth a mastered of the art of “present-mindedness” meets “just-passing-through”. Again, we as humans find relation with the moth on this point, but also find here something for emulation. We are also impermanent creatures – most assuredly “short lived” in the sense of notion of eternity that God dwells in. Like the moth’s dust-like composition, our corporeal bodies are ephemeral.
“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath…We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing. We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it. And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you. Rescue me from my rebellion…For I am your guest— a traveler passing through…” (Psalm 39)
This feeling of being transient could easily lead the moth (or us) to a sense of “what’s the point?” It could lead to destructive places in our head and heart and a feeling of nothing can be kept forever, so why try to reach anything at all? Why invest ourselves in this transitory life?
But that is not the mentality of the moth. Even if it is the kind that lives a single day, it lives with resolved aspiration – it seeks the light. It doesn’t let obstacles get in the way – closed windows or swatting hands – it doesn’t stop to consider the dangers of its zealous focus (“will that light burn me?”), it simply and repeatedly seeks the light. It doesn’t let any mothy doubt of whether the goal is obtainable in the time he has left in his life, nor does it let the knowledge of his limited time keep him from living. Instead, the moth lives zealously in the now. I’d like to think that he understands his transients, and this fuels his deliberateness.
It is for this that the simple moth has become a role model for me. While some might see this impetuous questing for sources of on light as suicidal, almost embarrassing, almost something to pity, I find that I want to mirror this behavior. How can I cultivate reckless intentionality? How might I nurture this insatiable hunger to seek the Lord as the moth seeks the light? Like Psalm 63, I want my “whole being” to long for the Lord as if He were water and I in a “dry and parched land”. I want to seek Him earnestly
Lately the word “intentionality” as been weaving its way in my thoughts. I so very much want to embody this word – to be purposeful with my time, to be seeking and reflecting God with my life while on Earth. I desire to understand that my time here is temporary, but not as a fear of time’s passing, rather as an opportunity to invest it well, to invest myself fully. I want to want this, yet I live in so often (most often) in a way that does not reflect this goal. But, today, the moth reminded me, and now stands as an illustration of this aim.
These thoughts about moths were evoked while reading Rodger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through the Trees. His writing of his past studies of moths, and his admiration of them brought my own personal moth encounter to mind. During my first summer doing field work, while working a night shift on a project in the Sierra Mountains, I was reading John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra with the use of a headlamp. A moth landed on my page. I like to think now, as I did then, that he was reading with me. I found in him, in that moment , a sense of companionship, not knowing that years later I’d find a sense of kinship that runs to the soul-deep level. If that moth was the kind that only lived a day, then he spent a good portion of his life with me. What a kindness. But it is his example, his species’ reckless seeking, their rash intentionality, their delight in the present opportunities to connect with light, that will indwell in me for the rest of my life. He is now a living sermon, and embodiment of Light, and role model for my psyche.