And now here is 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.
A new film based on St. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic The Little Prince recently made its premier. I haven’t seen it yet but it looks wonderful. Watching the previews reminds me of how important The Little Prince has been in my own life. I cannot count how many times I have read the book to my children at bedtime or explain the way in which it has changed the way I think about so-called children’s books. Saint-Exupery is keen to use the memory of childhood to show that we are all, in a way, still little children.
All grown-ups were once children … but only few of them remember it.
This is not an exercise in nostalgia or the desire to retreat to the past. Rather, it is an embrace of all that has gone into making up a full grown human being. We ought not to forget that we are rather rare creatures, made up of imagination and memory and dearly-won virtues. The past is part of who we are. If poets, as Shelley would have it, are the legislators of mankind, we begin to see that they exercise their responsibility in part by drawing us back into a world wherein what is important is not merely in what we see but in what is invisible. The Little Prince, like all great books, fills this role by reminding us of who we are and what exactly it is that makes us so special.
Saint-Exupery seems to be narrating autobiographically when he writes,
I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.
Adults aren’t disappointing simply because we have grown bigger, or obtained jobs, or taken on responsibilities. We are disappointing because for many of us these pursuits have taken on a disproportionate importance. We have forgotten how to see the world as it actually is and are blinded by appearances. We see people as statistics, education as functional, food as fuel, clothing as utilitarian, books as unnecessary luxury, and religion as morality. We vastly over-value what we can experience with the senses. If this is what it means to be a grown up, is it any wonder that Saint-Exupery refused to condone our way of life? We are like the accountant he describes, spending our days working over our books, counting everything up, claiming ownership of all we can fit in the ledger, and failing to see that we live in a whole, wild universe filled to the brim with stars somewhere in the midst of which one, unique rose lives on a planet and calls out for love.
The rose, for Saint-Exupery, represents love, the way in which we tame each other and allow ourselves to be tamed. It is this invisible virtue that makes one, single rose special. It isn’t the flower itself, after all, there are fields and fields of roses out there. By outward appearances, a rose is like any other rose. So how is it different? It is the invisible bond of love.
“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”
In order to have a truly perfect love, we are required in a way to become children again and learn to whole-heartedly trust and give all we have to the beloved. It isn’t as simple as retreating to childhood, though, because love brings with it responsibility. Again, we aren’t talking about sentimentality. Love is dangerous;
I remembered the fox. One runs the risk of crying a bit if one allows oneself to be tamed.
If we care for one another, we deny ourselves for their sake, even if this means we sometimes get hurt. It is worth the risk because the only other alternative, as Pope St. John Paul II argues again and again, is to treat every other person as an object. The cost of not daring to love is to miss the point of our existence entirely. It is to see a field of roses, objects that are nice enough but fairly common. Snap a picture and move on. Stop and linger, though, and the hidden meaning unfolds. Each rose is unique through the sacrificial love it is given. This meaning spills over into the entirety of the world. If we see with the heart, enchantment follows in all that we encounter;
A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
We shape and bring order to creation: a rock pile becomes beautiful, a drawing of a hat reveals that it is actually a boa constrictor with an elephant inside, and even the most harsh, forbidding climes reveal their hidden glory. The desert is a deadly place, arid and inhospitable, and yet even the desert holds a secret,
“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”
In the story as in his life, Saint-Exupery is a pilot. He first encounters the Little Prince after crashing his airplane in the desert. He knows that if he cannot fix his plane quickly he will die of exposure. At first, like any adult would, he concentrates on repairing the machine and is even slightly annoyed at this odd traveler who appears seemingly out of nowhere and does not seem to share his concern about their impending death. Instead, the Little Prince chatters on about wanting to have a sheep and the extinct volcanoes on his home planet and the special rose safely ensconced under glass that he left behind. How can he be so careless of his life, stranded in the desert with no food or water?
The Little Prince knows a secret. He knows that out there in the midst of the sunswept landscape there is a well. In that well is all the water they need. To him, the desert is not about the harsh realities of survival or what the eye can see. He doesn’t fixate on the relentless equatorial sun and the endless expanse—he sees the hidden well. The desert is a place of beauty because somewhere, somewhere hidden amongst the piles of sand there is a spring, and this hidden water in turn endows beauty and life and love to the weary ship-wrecked travelers.
An oft used metaphor for our own lives here on earth is that we inhabit a desert to be traversed. Our experience is often of sin, confusion, and longing for a heavenly home. We struggle to survive here, but when Our Lord comes to find us, he appears much as the Little Prince does. His concerns don’t always seem to match up with ours. He doesn’t help us fix the crashed plane and make an escape. Instead, he lives with us, dies with us, and through his resurrection redeems us. He is the well in the desert. The secret is to behold how this reality is infused with another, perfect reality. This is a desert, but it is beautiful. So is each and every person and thing under the sun. Somewhere out there is hidden a wellspring of life and it makes all things new.
“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it.”