Monday, March 21, 2011

The Little Prince

A common strategy in preaching, employed with parents who tend to stop listening when the homily begins, is to preach to the children.  Parents think this is cute, and they pay strict attention to see what  cute things Father is saying to their children.  Father, however, knows that this will happen, and so he says things that, while comprehensible to the children, are really directed at the parents.  It works every time.

Such, I think, was the strategy of Antoine de Saint-Auxupery when he wrote his famous novella for children, The Little Prince.  While in Minnesota several weeks back, J. Thorp had shown me a copy of the book that he intended to read.  I was paging through and decided I would need to revisit the text as I had not opened my own copy since my senior year in college.  Thus, after Dostoevsky, hoping for something lighter, I devoured the novella.  In tone, it is indeed much easier to read.  In substance, it is equally profound.

The work begins with the narrator, have made a crash landing in the Sahara Desert, attempting to fix his plane.  In the midst of this, he meets a boy who asks him to draw a sheep.  The man, after several failed attempts, draws a box and tells the boy the sheep is within. The boy claims that he can see the sheep, and thereafter, begins, piecemeal, to describe how he came to be in the desert alone.  He has arrived from his own planet where he lived along with a very vain Rose who believed herself to be unique in all of creation.  Eventually the boys leaves the planet and visits several others, inhabited by foolish men, before coming to Earth. 

On earth, he meets a variety of creatures teaching him valuable lessons.  Among them are a desert flower, a snake, and a whole bed of roses like the one he has left behind, and a fox who asks the boy to tame him so that the two might play together.  The fox explains to the prince that to tame him means "to establish ties."  He goes to to explain the nature of the ties established when one tames something:

If you tame me, it'll be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that'll be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat...

The prince tames the fox, but after a time knows that he must move on.   As he prepares to depart, he and the fox share this interchange:

And when the hour of his departure drew near—

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It's your own fault," said the little prince.
"I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…"

"Yes that is so", said the fox.

"But now you're going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes that is so" said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields."
And then he added: "go and look again at the roses.
You'll understand now that yours is unique in all the world.
Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret."

The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.
"You're not at all like my rose," he said.
"As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one.
You're like my fox when I first knew him.
He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.
But I have made a friend, and now he's unique in all the world."
And the roses were very much embarrassed.
"You're beautiful, but you're empty," he went on. "One could not die for you.
To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you
–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she's more important
than all the hundreds of you other roses:
because it is she that I have watered;
because it is she that I have put under the glass globe;
because it is for her that I've killed the caterpillars
(except the two or three we saved to become butterflies);
because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled,
or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing.
Because she is MY rose."

And he went back to meet the fox.
"Goodbye" he said.

"Goodbye," said the fox.
"And now here's my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye."

"What is essential is invisible to the eye,"
the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

"It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important."

"It is the time I have wasted for my rose–"
said the little prince so he would be sure to remember.

"Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it.
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
You are responsible for your rose…"
 This, to my mind, is a masterful conceptualization of the meaning of love.  Love tames us.  It forges ties between us.  Love will always hurt us.  This, I think, is the truth of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Him, whose heart was filled with love for us, to show his loved, allowed that same heart to be pierced by a lance.  So too must we love.  So often we hesitate because we have been hurt by love.  We hold back for fear that our love will bring us to pain, but in truth, it is that same pain that becomes the surest mark of true love.  Pain is the cost of being tamed.  Would that all of us allow ourselves to be tamed by another.

I think of this today, having spent the afternoon with a family who made the difficult decision to discontinue life support for their 14 month old daughter.  The little girl had tamed them.  And, for all the pain, they are better for having been tamed. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One is the Loneliest Number

The history of the Church is replete with pairs of saints.  Claire and Francis of Assisi; Benedict and Scolastica; Gregory and Basil; Cyril and Methodius; Perpetua and Felicity; Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier.  Even in our modern times, we see that there was a special relationship between John Paul II, who is to be beatified May 1 and Mother Theresa of Calcutta.  This pairing of saints, is not, I think,coincidental.  To live a life of virtue is to court loneliness.

I had not given this fact much thought until recently.  Though I almost constantly (and rightly so) exhort people to virtue, and though I constantly remind the kids in our formation program of the importance of swimming against the current, and though I admit to them that this is hard, I am not sure that I have ever given due consideration to the existential experience of loneliness that accompanies virtue, especially for high school students.

In about three weeks, I have talked to four or five high school students at some length about this fact.  Though the particulars of their experiences vary widely, a common theme accompanies each conversation.  They must choose between living as they know they ought and living a life that allows them to fit in.  This is about more than simple popularity.  At this point, most of these kids would be content just to have a true friend with whom they can be honest, who will be honest with them, and who strives after the same things they strive after.  More and more the are discovering that a life in Christ is a zero sum game.  It is all or nothing, and the cost can be very high.  The agony of this decision is particularly pronounced in the life of a teenager because he is also, at that point in his life, asking serious questions about his own identity.  The exhortation of Christ to let the dead bury the dead and to give up everything to follow Christ is now being realized in their lives.  A decision for Christ can feel as though it leaves them standing alone.

This loneliness, as heart-wrenching as it may be, is a good thing.  It speaks to a singularly profound longing that all of us eventually experience.  Though a bit fluffy, I appreciate the analogy provided by the person who first commented that there is a God shaped hole in each of our hearts.  This image evokes the truth that we each possess an aching to fit in, to be known, to be understood, and to be loved.  As beautiful as human love is, it is never quite enough to fill the God shaped hole.  Just as they are renegotiating all of the rest of their relationships, these teens are suddenly finding themselves on the harrowing path that leads them to solitude, and therein, the depths of the Father's love.  The pairs of saints that punctuate our history knew this, and they encouraged one another to keep on that path, even when they, like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, could no longer walk with their pilgrim friend.

This loneliness is why we need a Church.  In a Church, as a community, we encourage one another to keep moving forward.  Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, we easily become terrified as we approach the precipice; we need someone like Sam to carry us to the edge.  We need someone to walk behind us who prevents us from turning back.  These kids are learning that intimacy with God is something that they must do alone.  But like all of us, they long for someone who will keep telling us that it is worth doing.