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"Mom! I think he's dead!" she shouted, running into the room. "Santa Claws is dead!" Juliana wasn't talking about St. Nicholas. She is 14, after all. What Juliana was talking about was her pet-if-you-can-call-it-that crayfish, which, in a burst of particular silliness, she had named Santa Claws.
"What makes you think he's dead?" I asked, wondering about when (and whether) I planned to replace the strangely intriguing aquarium resident. After hearing that it was because she'd seen him lying unnaturally on his side, I told Juliana to leave him there for the time being and that I would take care of getting rid of it in the morning. She was a bit sad at what had happened, but took it pretty much in stride. We hadn't had Santa for very long. But, as anyone who keeps fish knows, sometimes that's just how it goes. I was glad that freshwater crayfish only cost five dollars.
A few minutes later Juliana came running up the stairs again, this time with excitement, a big smile, and even bigger news. "He's alive! He's alive! It was only his shell! I found him hiding in the corner!" Evidently, Santa Claws had molted. He left his shell lying on its side because he had grown too big for it. All was right with the world.
It's probably a bit strange to find theological reflection in the lifecycle of a crayfish. But I can't help noticing that the thing that looked dead had never actually been alive. The shell that was left behind was merely that, the creature's shell -- not the creature himself. The appearance of what had happened was very misleading. Far from dying, the crayfish had actually grown. In fact, he had outgrown the confines and limitations of his former self.
I think something similar happens to us. When we look most distressed to the people around us -- perhaps even to ourselves -- it may well be because we are ready to shed the shell we're currently stuffed into. The funny thing is that growth can feel a lot like dying. In some respects, it is a lot like dying.
As I reflect on beginning a new year, I'm thinking about what shells I ought to grow out of and leave behind. The shells in which we take refuge may look like us, but they aren't us. In the end, a shell that holds us together also hems us in. But I'm also thinking about people in my life whom I may have considered dead simply because I thought I saw them when I was actually looking at a discarded shell. Withholding judgment is a grace. I pray that in the coming year, God will give me more of it.
Our faith reassures us that growth and change are always possible; that even when something has died, it is possible for it to be brought back to life. The power of Christ's resurrection reveals that the empty tomb isn't just an unoccupied cave, but the empty shell of all humanity. We were created to outgrow this world and destined to leave our earthly selves behind. It's not that we will ever be other than who and what we are, but that we will be more fully and completely who and what we were intended to be.
On the not-so-distant shores of heaven's crystal sea, I imagine Jesus is walking much as he did along the beach in Galilee in those first few weeks after he rose from the dead. I think Jesus bends down to collect shells at low tide. Lifting them up, he knows that the creatures who once lived in them are no longer there, even when the creatures themselves do not. Someday, I pray that Jesus will set all the shells I've left behind in a place where I can see them for what they can be: steps along the way, confines abandoned, limits broken, false selves outgrown, death discarded.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.