The Fox

Pastors, speakers, and youth leaders all declared: “we are not open enough! When someone asks how you’re doing, tell him, even if it isn’t nice to hear! Yell at God every irritation and disappointment; every emotion of doubt and dislike.” I grew up in a culture that was always expecting its members to force ourselves on each other and on God; to grow close to each other by exertion on the one side, and uncritical openness on the other. We must strip away our masks, and throw out our costumes. There will be no icons in the church, no costume balls, and no complicated dance steps. Everything is raw experience. I exaggerate. Nobody actually adhered to such exhortations, and we were often chastised for that. Friends of mine would go on a week long mission trip, and become “extremely close” to everyone on the team. They would hug and say that we were a family now. Yet when I sent a letter a month later, nobody would reply. For the most part I ignored such advice. I would like to say it was because of innate delicacy, but really I just don’t enjoy looking a fool. I was still willing to credit that the key to deep and meaningful relationships was some kind of “intense experience” to bind everyone together. It was simply unfortunate that we should be so made – because there’s nothing very nice, or even intimate, about crying and disclosing with with a number of relative strangers, and in my own case forced intimacies never managed to take in any event. But I had no argument, and not much of an alternative.

It was in such a state that I came upon the advice of the fox in The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In the story of the little prince and the fox, there are three wise observations about friendship: first, the fox’s instructions on how the prince must tame him, how he must approach cautiously, with proper warning, and not speak too much; it shows one of the great differences friendship makes – that the friend becomes “unique in all the world;” third, it shows one of the great joys of love: that through it, everything associated with the beloved becomes precious.

When I first read the story of the little prince and fox, the part that really jumped out at me was the fox’s instructions on how the prince must learn to tame him. It stood in stark contrast with everything I had heard of was smashing souls together, forwardness, and stripping away masks. Here at last was an account of friendship which rather required reticence, time, and a good deal of patience. Being very young, at first I could only take it to mean that it was alright if I myself was like the fox. In time, I began to appreciate similar shyness in others: that if we were to be friends at all, it must be according to terms through which we could learn to “tame” each other, with time and patience, and not too many words, “for words cause misunderstandings.” It helped me to explain to myself why it was that people who I greatly wanted to know wouldn’t be too forward about it, and how I couldn’t be too forward myself. Perhaps we could talk at the same time every week, and then “supposing you were to come at four. By two I should begin to be happy, and then as the hour approached, I should begin worrying and jumping and jumping about, for my heart would know when to be ready to greet you.” It helped put words to an intuition I had had about the feelings of both myself and my friends.

The reason that the fox gives for wanting to be tamed is that, on account of not having any special friends; “my life is very monotonous. I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike… But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun had come to shine in my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.” When the prince says that he hasn’t much time, because he has “a great many friends to discover, and a great many things to understand,” the fox responds that “one only understands the things one has tamed.” It is so simple and perfect that it hardly needs comment, but in experience it is true. Someone I know likes to say that “we cannot help those we do not love,” and the reciprocal statement is that we cannot love those who we have not, in the words of the fox, “tamed” – or who have not tamed us. We show up in a city, or at a job or club or church, and everybody is – to us – just like everybody else, and we do not need them. “But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.” Then, gradually, we learn to love and befriend one or another of them, and he or she is no longer simply a face in a crowd, but a person “unique in all the world.” It is a process greatly to be desired, but can also be greatly neglected, because we do not need each other yet. Instead, says the fox, men are always rushing about to do and buy everything, expecting it to be ready-made and available for purchase. “But there is no shop anywhere where one can by friendship, and so men have no friends any more.”

This past year I moved to a small village in bush Alaska, thrown together with about twenty other people very different from myself. We came expecting to teach, and perhaps not much else, certainly with none of the enthusiastic hopes I’ve seen in mission groups, of becoming one “family” in a week – or a year – or two years, for that matter. So we perhaps become real friends with one or two people, and otherwise we go home to our work and TV and frozen salmon and books. I was talking with a neighbor about it: “why do you think we teachers haven’t become better friends, even though we’re living in such a little community for a whole year, without outside company? Why haven’t we made a real society for ourselves?” He replied that it probably wasn’t right, but “why invest? Everyone leaves sooner or later, and then we’ll never see each other again. Maybe it isn’t worth it.” Had he read this story, I might have replied: “of course it’s worth it! Because of the color of the wheat fields…” Or, in my experience, because of fugues, and computer programs, and byzantine rulers, and Greek coffee.

Reading a book of sacramental theology, I was surprised to find a quote in it about the story of the fox and our relationship with God, by Metropolitan Anthony Boom (1971):

Have another look at the passage in The Little Princeby Antoine de Saint-Exupery where the fox describes how the little prince should learn to tame him – he must be very patient, sit a little way off, and look at him out of the corner of his eye and say nothing, for words cause misunderstandings. And every day he will sit a little closer, and they will become friends. Put “God” in the place of the fox, and you will see loving, chaste shyness, a diffidence which offers but does not prostitute itself: God does not accept a glib, smooth relationship, nor does he impose his presence – he offers it, but it can only be received on the same terms, those of a humble, loving heart, when two timidly, shyly seeking people reach to each other because of a deep mutual respect and because both recognize the holiness and the extraordinary beauty of reciprocal love.

As those I was with saw the contrast between the strict formality of proper manners and the gushing openness of religious youth, and ruled always on the side of the latter, so to, seeing the contrast between the reticent formality of liturgy and prayer books, and the loud familiarity of “intimate” rock worship and extemporaneous and emotional prayers, I had mostly heard condemnation of the former, and approbation of the latter. Only noise could prove the presence of life. In such a context, the thought of God showing something like shyness, and accepting the same from us was delightful. Perhaps it could be sometimes acceptable to “pour out my heart” and sometimes “sit and look out of the corner of my eye, and say nothing.”

In conclusion, the story of the fox and the little prince is simple and wise, giving aa charming picture of friendship.It gave me words to express the intuition that many friendships are created only once we learn to “tame” each other with time and patience, that such friendship is what makes others become “unique in all the world,” so that even common objects make us think of them and smile, and that such friendship can be used to describe relationships with other people and with God.

One thought on “The Fox

  1. Love this! Just back from mission trip myself to Costa Rica and I am thinking through the taming of some new acquaintances I made there. I want to grow such and that takes time and gentleness and faithfulness. Those I listen to best, watch for what they love and become genuinely curious and patient toward, become those most dearest to me. It is good and satisfying work. Well, spoken.

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