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Spiritual Connections – Cicadas and Possibilities (May 2021)

Jun 16, 2021

You’ve no doubt heard all about the cicada emergence going on in a large swath of the country this year. Cicadas are prevalent on an annual basis, but there are some types that only come out in periodic intervals, 13 or 17 years. And only 15 of these periodic broods exist in the whole of the United States (they’re the ones with the red eyes). They really are special little creatures.
I grew up learning a lot about cicadas. My stepfather, who raised my brother and I, studied biology in undergrad and grad school and wrote his thesis on a brood of cicadas in Central PA. There is some cicada art in my parent’s house and I’ve seen his species displays. Like most kids, I rolled my eyes and ignored the information he tried to give us growing up. But then I experienced an emergence. I was at a meeting at Princeton Seminary around 2005 and as I drove into town my first thought was that there must be some construction going on. Then I noticed that the sidewalks on campus looked like they were moving. I realized at that moment how interesting and energizing an emergence of periodic cicadas was, how raucous and loud, how out of control and even overwhelming it would be. It wasn’t until 2013 when my parents had moved back to NJ, near to us, that another emergence arrived, this one where they lived. My stepfather was elated. An emergence, in their yard! Nothing was better.
 
I realized that year that the emergence of cicadas is really a unique and special event, I found it in some ways to be deeply holy and filled with the divine Spirit of the Creator. I spent hours in their yard checking out the hoards of bugs on branches and climbing up trees. Cicadas are friendly and harmless creatures, they will sit on your arm if you put them there, it makes for great photo-taking with little kids – you can just cover them with cicadas! These photos are mine from 2013.
The gift of Creation is for me, the most indescribable and incredible gift we have received from God. Just when you think you know an ecosystem, or a family yard, viola! something arrives like the cicadas and everything is transformed. It still amazes me that they live nearly their entire lives (except a few short weeks every 13 or 17 years) hanging out underground, living off tree sap and water from tree roots. And that these red-eyed, crazy looking, loud insects know when their time is up, and they appear to be seen (and heard) for their frenetic and short mating season.
 
A wise leader in the Church said to me a few weeks ago on the phone that he feels that folks in our country are spoiled and restless. They haven’t been OK with the semi-isolation of that last year and a half of the pandemic, and are just itching to get back to being out and about. He said he sees this as a spiritual problem, because we are not good at just “being”, resting in God, being in prayer, noticing what the Spirit is saying in the silence. I am still struggling to put my thoughts and emotions into words about what we have been through and are still going through with this pandemic. We are in a rarefied and privileged space here in the United States while most of the rest of the world struggles without vaccines and are still suffering immensely. Like many of you I have both welcomed and detested the pace of the last year – the isolation, the different rhythm of life. I too have been filled with sorrow at the loss of friends, colleagues and family during this time, and had a fair amount of my own worries and fears creep in. And there have been unexpected blessings of this time, and there are things I am trying to prayerfully sort out about who I am now versus who I was in March 2020. I have a feeling most, if not all of you are in the same spiritual and emotional space.
A recent article I read notes that “[i]n a pandemic, humans face the most danger from crowds. But among cicadas, the more bodies, the better. “They have this safety-in-numbers strategy, in order to survive,” [says] Chris Simon, a biologist at the University of Connecticut. Not all cicadas synchronize their emergence. Those that do, called periodical cicadas, engage in a self-sacrificial strategy: So many come out at once that even the most gluttonous predators can’t nom the bugs into extinction.”
We are now beginning to hit the point in the pandemic, at least here in the United States where we can be in limited crowds again. It is both exciting and terrifying. We have to reset our mental cues about how we interact with others. We have new habits we have to bring along and figure out how to integrate. Trying to do this on your own, or with your own family or friend group is hard enough, let alone the challenges we are all navigating in congregational and community life. It is going to take some time for each of us to figure out where we are, as individuals and as groups – much grace and forbearance with one another will be needed.
 
I will say, I am jealous that we are not living in the zone for the cicada emergence this year. I remember how wonderful it was to be a part of one eight years ago. And I also remember the sense of sadness that came as it ended, and the long hibernation began. It was one of those liminal, special times. I wanted the season to linger. I loved the sound and sheer joy of these creatures as they found their cicada-lover. They’d been waiting a long time for that moment to continue their species and set things up for the next generation.
 
What are we loving into existence at this time? What are you rushing toward? Where is joy and exuberance? What are we setting up for the next generation? These feel like important faith questions for us today.
 
Another wise friend of mine shared with me this idea earlier this year: “In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites wander for 40 years in the desert because it takes that long (a generation) to get the ways of the empire out of their system.” What the pandemic has shown us starkly, clearly, painfully, bitterly is that the empire-system we live and participate in, isn’t working and is deeply sinful. Human depravity and harm have been laid bare. As people of faith, our question for this moment must be, what are we building? What are we co-creating? Is it sustainable in the generational sense of things? Does it honor the incredible gift of Creation? We are living in a time of many crises, a pandemic, the climate crisis, disaster capitalism, addiction to war and violence, soul-crushing racism. And we are living in a time of possibility, to be about the world that God is always birthing into being, lovingly nudging us towards, and showing us the way to healing and futuring through the interconnectedness of the Creation.
 
I’ve gone on a bit long this month, I thank you for indulging me. I leave you with this final thought from the brilliantly spiritual article by Katherine Wu in The Atlantic:
“Human timelines are hazier than cicadas’. We can’t guarantee when we’ll be able to safely break free of our confines and mingle unchecked. But when we do, we won’t have to flame out in a matter of weeks; we won’t have to die from a butt-munching fungus (yes, that’s actually happening to the poor cicadas this year!). And unlike insects, we can endure our time in isolation knowing just how much the wait will pay off, then reflect on the lessons we have learned—about ourselves, about what matters most in life, about how to stop outbreaks from spiraling out of control. A lot can change in 17 years. The next time the cicadas are here, perhaps we’ll have grown up, too.”
Here’s to growing up in all the ways God is calling us to in this urgent season….

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, General Presbyter

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