As we begin a new year, the need for a renewing transforming spirituality is ever more evident, particularly in the face of much 'traditional' religion which continues to choose death over life. One expressive icon is that of the dragonfly, which, literally and metaphorically, I have personally encountered richly recently. For dragonflies are extraordinary creatures. No wonder they have become powerful symbols for transgender people. The picture above is thus a little creation of mine from a silent retreat I took in December, pointing to some expressive elements for everyone.. For whilst these have particular resonance for transgender people, they can also speak helpfully to others, as and when we open ourselves to more life-giving spiritual pathways for our communities and planet...
towards spiritualities of transformation
Many aspects of the dragonfly give cause for wonder, insight, and encouragement. I have highlighted a few of these in my drawing, but they are linked together under the central theme of transformation. For dragonflies are striking symbols of transition in general, as well as transgender icons, not least in regard to the metaphysical aspects of life. They hence carry significance, especially in an age where there is a profound battle happening for the shape of spirituality and religion. Will our souls settle for what is, as if this is all that is possible, clinging to what we may try to pretend will make us 'safe'? Or will we allow our existing selves to become new selves, our existence changed into what we know not quite what (yet)? Will we choose deadening spiritualities of fighting for territory, walling ourselves up and others out? Or will we share in enlivening spiritualities of transformation, allowing ourselves, and others, to be set free? Will our be-ing include be-coming?
dragonflies - what's in a name?
Interestingly, the very name 'dragonfly' has a history. For, in Europe past, dragonflies were thought of as witches' animals, or creatures of Satan - somewhat as other figures of transformation have easily been misunderstood and, sometimes cruelly, caricatured. In early colonial Australia, they were also known as 'horse stingers', as horses often twitched when they were present - until it was observed, and finally accepted, that they were actually eating the real stingers. As such, their story calls to us to be wiser in our perceptions and in our attribution of character and value. Happily, Japanese culture has thus seen dragonflies as symbols of courage, strength and happiness.
mystery - ancient, diverse and embodied
The truth is that dragonflies are both re-new-ing and profoundly ancient creatures, who came into existence before the dinosaurs, and well before their pretty cousins the butterflies. They thus speak of mystery, and in profound diversity, as there are reckoned to be over 3000 different species. Like many transgender people, their embodiment is also remarkable, as the physicality of their identities changes radically. For they begin as water creatures, changing firstly from eggs to nymphs below the water, where they spend most of their lives. Then, through wrenching metamorphosis, they become flying creatures, albeit at risk for a period until their wings work fully. Their often short time of life as mature creatures has also been likened spiritually to that of human beings, with an encouragement to live in the moment, as well as to be open to change.
Not for nothing has their sight also been imbued with spiritual significance. For the compound eyes of dragonflies are amazing, enabling 360 degree vision. Meanwhile their habit of skating over water, and seemingly looking deep within, has conjured up allusions for human beings of the need to look both more insightfully, and also below the immediate layers of life.
Similarly, the striking coloration of dragonflies encourages greater human openness to light and its effects within and without. For many adult dragonflies have irridescent or metallic colours which create conspicous effects in flight. Their wings are also generally clear, allowing the impression of translucency and an ability to change colours to reflect the light and spirit of life.
wings of life - swift yet still
Such adaptability to light and life is further amplified by the amazing wings of dragonflies, which can also symbolise spiritual agility and extraordinary sensitivity to breath/wind and movement. Indeed, dragonflies typically combine remarkable swiftness with stillness: being able to move, in six directions, up to 45 miles per hour, yet with wings which may only have 30 beats per minute (far fewer than seemingly similar flying creatures), with different styles and modes of flight.
bearers of healing
Far from being destructive, like human figures of transformation, dragonflies can also represent healing, literally and metaphorically. Not for nothing did the Navajo thus identify dragonflies with pure water, both spiritually and for what they revealed materially. More recently this ability to witness to refreshment, and bring healing effect, has been recognised in other places - such as in Burma/Myanmar, where dragonflies have been used to help eradicate mosquitoes which were carrying yellow fever.
Such connections illustrate the thankfully growing perception in some places that, scientifically and spiritually, nature and humanity, like soul and matter, are not separate but rather intimately linked. We can, and must, learn from all with which we interact and all that we are as part of one ecosphere. This is not simply deep mystic insight but practical endeavour, For dragonflies have been found to offer powerful ecological insights too. Studying their remarkable wings for example, researchers at Newcastle University in England have been exploring the use of their aerogels to help with energy reduction, with applications to vital contemporary technology such as wind turbines. For to cast aside that, and those, which embody and enable transformation may be to continue to be both spiritually, and materially, stupid. In contrast, a spirituality which takes a dragonfly seriously offers deepr realisation of truth and a maturity of growth.
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: