Noses pressed to the window pane
“Good morning”, said the little prince.
“Good morning”, said the railway switchman.
“What is it that you do here”? asked the little prince.
“I sort the travelers into bundles of a thousand”, the switchman said. “I dispatch the trains that carry them, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left”.
And a brightly lit express train, roaring like thunder, shook the switchman’s cabin.
“What a hurry they’re in”, said the little prince. “What are they looking for”?
“Not even the engineer on the locomotive knows”, the switchman said.
And another brightly lit express train thundered by in the opposite direction.
“Are they coming back already”? asked the little prince.
“It’s not the same ones”, the switchman said. “It’s an exchange”.
“They weren’t satisfied, where they were”? asked the little prince.
“No one is ever satisfied where he is”, the switchman said.
And a third brightly lit express train thundered past.
“Are they chasing the first travelers”? asked the little prince.
“They’re not chasing anything”, the switchman said. “They’re sleeping in there, or else they’re yawning. Only the children are pressing their noses against the windowpanes”.
“Only the children know what they’re looking for”, said the little prince. “They spend their time on a rag doll and it becomes very important, and if it’s taken away from them, they cry …”.
“They’re lucky”, the switchman said.
This little exchange is from Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s delightful story, The Little Prince. I first read The Little Prince when I was a student of French a long time ago and its utter honesty and penetrating wisdom, so simply expressed through the ponderings of the little prince, never cease to draw me in. And in this extract, wise words indeed from that quaint little character. We are lucky when we know what we’re looking for. We are lucky when we spend our time on that ‘rag doll’ and it becomes very important.
The picture of the express trains thundering past, this way and that, is a rather apt image of twenty-first century living. It can seem that there is a dizzying array of activities, ‘must dos’, constantly demanding our attention, our commitment. As Henri Nouwen says: “One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. Our lives often seem like overpacked suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealised proposals. Although we are very busy, we have a lingering feeling of never really fulfilling our obligations”.
How true this can be! And of course, what happens if we succumb to this way of living, is that we ‘fall asleep’. Just like the passengers in the express trains we can be so caught up in the rapid flow of life as we are dragged along, that in fact we are never quite awake to the wonder and magnificence of life. Anthony De Mello, the Indian Jesuit spiritual teacher, describes it in this way: “Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they die in their sleep. They never understand the loveliness, the beauty and the sacredness of this thing that we call human existence”. And he goes on to say that what we need to do is wake up!
Ms Kerry McCullough
Spirituality and Liturgy Coordinator