I bumped into one of my sisters this morning. To be more precise, I actually crashed right into her.
Did she experience our collision as a disorienting disruption, dizzyingly turning in the wind as her world came undone? Or was it just one more tear she would have to mend, one of those routine inconveniences that are “just part of doing business”?
In her eight eyes, I must have been merely another bumbling would-be predator who tore right through her web. Whatever little impression I might have made on sister spider, she almost immediately got back to work.
Gnats and beetles won’t catch themselves – though with slightly stronger silk she might well have enjoyed an early retirement after wrapping up this oversized catch.
Sister spider, at least this particular one, is a spiny backed orb-weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis). I ran into her while making my way along the edge of the bottomland woods behind my home.
I was too busy re-tracing a trail overgrown with greenbriers and river cane to notice her six-foot-wide silken snare looming before me. Now that she had my attention, I observed her for a few minutes.
She was just smaller than a fingernail, with a speckled-white crab shaped “shell” making up most of her body. As she steadily repaired the damaged sections of her web, a complex design began to re-form: seemingly dozens of spirals forming the “orb” spanning more than a foot in diameter, anchored at five or six points several feet apart on the surrounding limbs and leaves.
Maybe I’m delirious from a sweltering Eastern North Carolina summer, but recently I’ve found myself trying to imagine the daily experiences of the wild fellow creatures that I meet on my walks through Boykin Woods.
I want to know these brothers and sisters as they really are – as actual, specific, sacred living things that are worth noticing and cherishing, despite all my years of walking and living right past them (or carelessly smashing into them!). Because whether or not they need me, I need them.
I need sister spider because any reduction in the volume of flying, stinging, buzzing and biting things in Wilson County is welcome, and she eats through more than her fair share. But even if I somehow came to miss the wandering clouds of annoyance she faithfully keeps in check, I need sister spider for the witness only she can offer.
As she stubbornly goes on weaving delicate loop upon loop, as she waits impossibly patient and still, and as she hangs head down, vulnerably and daringly over heights hundreds of times her size, she shows me a wonderfully lighter way of being in the world.
For many of us, life these days often feels like so many fragile strands, barely holding together.
How can we go on living in a nation so divided, so violent and so unjust, where the possible solutions to our problems seem only to deepen the fractures in our communities?
How can we enjoy a meal, drive a car or turn on the air conditioning without being overwhelmed with the sense that we are hastening our own demise through climate change?
How can we go on having children when more and more of us fear the earth they inherit may be unlivable?
How can we continue to believe, to pray, to preach and to minister when the decline or even death of so many of our churches seems inevitable?
For her part, sister spider can’t afford despair – even if she had the capacity for it. She goes on weaving despite the strong possibility someone’s big head might just pull down the whole thing.
She builds, she creates, even though the only thing she might catch in her elaborate construction today is a dry leaf or a few drops of dew. She makes art, she fills a niche in this local environment, this natural sanctuary, that perhaps no one will ever stop to notice.
I’m glad I noticed. I needed to be tempted to see her weaving an absurd kind of faith, with a defiant faithfulness. I needed to be caught once again by the threads of grace and freedom.
This is no parable. It’s the living reality of creation that remains blessed and good, despite everything.
It’s the daily struggle and triumph of the woman who ministers and preaches despite everything. It’s the courageous audacity of the trans person who dares to claim who they are.
It’s the smoldering fire of the burned-out teacher who is preparing one more lesson plan. It’s whatever allows people to be crazy enough to still get married, have and welcome children, give, have church, plant a garden, vote, speak and listen.
It must have been something like whatever Jesus had in mind when – despite everything – he said, “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
I don’t know what sister spider felt in those uncertain moments when she clung to a single, thinnest strand of silk, twisting over an unfathomable height. I was too busy ripping off my shirt, shaking out my hair and shrieking in terror to really watch.
But I’d like to imagine it didn’t feel to her like falling: suddenly, she was flying, impossibly light and free. Someday, I pray, I might also learn to fly.
Caldwell and his wife Brittany serve as co-pastors of Nobles Chapel Baptist Church in Sims, North Carolina. He is a lover of (almost) all things wild, including his soon to be four year old daughter. Chase is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Campbell University Divinity School, with a research focus on wilderness ministry for the local church. Find more of Chase’s work at awildernessway.blogspot.com.