Gill Pennington, The very hungry caterpillar and a Möbius strip

Our second 2021 Conference speaker’s talk on 14 July 2021 was from Gill Pennington, former Spirituality tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Centre, Birmingham.

Gill spoke about spiritual awareness and development and presented a series of slides loosely based on the well-known illustrated children’s book, Eric Carle’s ‘The very hungry caterpillar’.

Just as the caterpillar in the story eats and eats and also eats unsuitable food (unlikely for a caterpillar) until it has indigestion, so, Gill suggests, humans consume and consume, and are absorbed in great busyness, until they also suffer from a mental indigestion and perhaps feel unwell or dissatisfied. Then, as the caterpillar eats a simple green leaf, before pupating and going into its cocoon for a long ‘sleep’, humans (or Quakers at least?), seeking respite from their busyness and ‘indigestion’, simplify or retreat into silent worship which provides rest and spiritual nourishment.

After a period in the cocoon, in which it is transformed, the once caterpillar emerges as a beautiful butterfly.  In parallel fashion, the worshipper who has sought stillness and silence is transformed into a ‘fully developed’ and beautiful human being.  The caterpillar eats, grows, pupates and is transformed and emerges as the beautiful butterfly.  So the human, to realise their true destiny, must live (and eat and work etc.), grow and develop but then go through a spiritual process of transformation, perhaps through stillness and letting go, in order to reach their spiritual goal.

Gill drew parallels between different forms of Quakerism, from the ‘Godly’ and use of traditional godly language, to the non-theist and cited a number of quotations and books, including David Boulton’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997)

Gill talked of the relationship between the inner (contemplative or silent) life and the outer or active life in the world and how these can seem separate but then illustrated how they might be integrated by showing us the making of a paper ‘mobius strip’ in which the inner (illustrated in white) and the outer (illustrated in a contrasting colour) become continuous or one with each other, the mobius strip magically only having one continuous side through a twist in the paper band. (good-luck!)  In an analogous way, being active in life and having a spiritual practice (for example of silence) can perhaps integrate our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ personalities to become a better ‘whole’.

Before closing with a quote she loves from the dancer Martha Graham from Agnes de Mille’s biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
(From this quote), Gill asked us, in our small breakout groups, to consider:
“How can you ‘keep your channel open’ to enable you to enhance your vitality, your life force, your energy and how might you translate this into action and consider possible change?”

The comparisons with the ‘very hungry caterpillar’ made the principles memorable: growth and busyness; ‘indigestion’; spiritual practice and transformation; emerging ‘whole’ (and beautiful) like a butterfly.

I’m not entirely sure whether ” You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” from the Martha Graham quote could be a description of Quaker worship and ministry.

Our thanks to Gill for a memorable and thought provoking illustrated talk.

We look forward to welcoming you to our next conference speaker Dinah Livingstone, Editor of Sofia (Sea of Faith magazine) on Wednesday 21st July at 7.20pm.

Full details here:

Registration here:


2 thoughts on “Gill Pennington, The very hungry caterpillar and a Möbius strip”

  1. I appreciated the ideas in this talk, and especially Gill’s use of images, metaphors and symbols to communicate them. While “non-theist” is clearly not “theist”, surely it is not necessarily “agnostic” or “atheist” either. A pedantic quibble on my part maybe, but I am uncomfortable with the use of literal language to discuss spiritual ideas such as God, and it is simply that which brings me to this group within Quakers. When we use language like “one and one are two” we understand truth to be something all there, or not there at all – and we can either be certain of it, or not. When we say instead “one and one are one”, this seems not true – yet when pondering spiritually, such a statement may be full of meaning, and lead us to spiritual truths. So the literal discussion of God in this talk brought to mind the quote ” … for words killeth …”. (I have been reading “God, Words and Us” and “Breakthrough to Unity – the Quaker Way held within the mystic traditions” and the quote is in one of those)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Still ingesting these recent inputs.

    There are so many cultural contexts that are enmeshed, illumination seems an unreasonable expectation.

    Analogies have more in common with anthropomorphic projection- and the animism of early hominid practice.

    Timeless omniscience, imparted particularly to finite, temporal life forms, is a material basis for non-theists distinctions from theism.

    Equally disconcerting are the exclusivity & constraints of Aristotelian logic.

    If one accepts the thesis that there are ‘things’ larger than ‘us’- isn’t our lifetime of experiences an example of something “larger” that persists?

    What if ‘spirituality’ is process? (Not ‘a’ or ‘The’ process, nor a “Final Answer”.)

    Isn’t as a verb more likely than a noun for spirit?

    As for caterpillar/butterfly purpose(s) or existence – is it symbiotic [Parasitism, Commensalism, Mutualism…]? It’s engorgement is only part sustenance. It’s also investment in the next generation of butterflies. And the pollination of other species next generations.

    Liked by 1 person

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