Ecdysis is a term used for the molting of the shell of a crab. Indeed this molting is what the western christian church is now undergoing as it emerges into a period of testing: will it stay locked into its shell and die of constriction or will it break its shell open and emerge, tender, soft, expanding but vulnerable? We do not yet know. There may not be the imagination for its change nor the people with the imagination and courage to hold that space.
But I think that it is not only the church which is molting. I think we humans molt as well. In our suffering, we face from time to time, the reality that we are needing a new and larger shell – container for what and who we are. And here I do not mean the American penchant for “bigger is better” since that way of being in the world is what is killing it. Bigger jobs, bigger salaries, bigger endowments, bigger energy needs, bigger budgets, bigger staffs, bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger bonuses, bigger parties …this is the American way, and it is killing us and the planet on which we are stranded. No. I do not mean bigger for the sake of growth. I mean bigger because of real growth. Perhaps God is really in charge? Perhaps God is fully aware of our suffering. This would make God implicated in our suffering but it would also, with some faith, require that we wonder if God is allowing suffering for some larger purpose in our lives or the life of the planet and its sentient beings.
When a Virginia blue crab molts for a larger shell, as happens as much as 20 times in its life, it begins ecdysis. It reduces its reproductive functions and begins to quiet its metabolic everything. It finds a quiet place under some rock where it is safer from predators. It then takes on water and craks open its shell along its back and claws. Pulling from its old shell is hard work and the drama of it tends to get noticed by predators who want that tasty soft-shelled crab for dinner. It happens in oceans, in families and in churches. A soft shell has been forming for weeks under the hard one and so, once emerged, the new shell begins to harden but not before the crab again intakes massive amounts of water in order to blow up its soft shell to a size 33% larger than the last one so that it has space into which to grow.
Can suffering be a molting process? Can we imagine that God is doing some of God’s best work in us when we are suffering? I think that getting out of suffering is not the goal as much as finding the way to balance it as it is doing its work, the way carrying two buckets is easier than just one.
We do not wish suffering on anyone and we often would take it from loved ones if we could, bearing that burden ourselves. And that is what God does next week for humanity. So perhaps our suffering is indeed our polishing. What if the goal is not avoiding the suffering, but rather finding those people who can stand guard while we molt, whispering over and over again “break open and grow, I will watch for the sharks.”
Perhaps what best accompanies molting and suffering is not scotch, or drugs, or caffeinated work, or porn, or binge-eating or television, shopping or bullying or any of the various anesthesia we try to use to deaden the pain. Perhaps instead we need to feel the pain, break the shells, ingest and swell on the waters of our baptism and choose the right people in our lives to keep watch. Perhaps the key to suffering is friendship. Is that not what John and Mary did at the cross? They just stood there, loving that beautiful man, while needful work was underway.
Friendship is the church’s most powerful sacrament.