Let me start with a little story. Way back in the 90s, when I was a young man, I was browsing a garage sale where I saw a book called The Little Prince, which I remembered fondly as a child. So I tucked it under my arm and brought it to a young lady to pay. She asked me a few questions. Why was I buying it? Would I take care of it? Would it get read? She wanted to make sure her copy went to a good home. It’s that kind of book.
It was written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French pilot and author. In 1935, his plane crashed in the Sahara desert. His miraculous survival inspired this book, published shortly before his death in 1944, while flying a reconnaissance mission over Germany during WWII.
It starts off with this quote: All grown-ups were once children – although few of them remember it.
A primary theme in this book is learning to see the world as a child. The “grown ups” in this story really take a beating, though I think his use of the phrase “grown Ups” is kind of a shorthand for that part of us that has grown ‘old’, rigid, unseeing, and uncaring. I think he’s trying to help us remember what it’s like to experience the world as we once did. When we could ‘see’ beneath the surface of things. When we knew what was really important.
Here’s a quote:
“Grown ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them. When you tell them about a new friend you made, then never ask what his voice sounds like, what games does he play, does he collect butterflies?” Instead they want to know numbers. How old is he, how many brothers does he have, how much do his parents make. “Children should always show great forbearance towards grown-up people.”
So, as our story begins: our Narrator, when he was a child, drew a picture of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. When asked if the drawing frightens them, the grown-ups would say, “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” They can only see a hat, no matter how many times they have it explained to them. They advise him to put aside his artistic dreams, and so he did. He grew up.
But even so, our narrator is lonely in the grown-up world. When he meets someone who seems to not be entirely grown up, he shows them the picture of the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, to see if they are a person of understanding. But they would always say, “It is a hat.” And he would have to talk to them about grown up things, not about boa constrictors and elephants.
So he has lived his life without anyone he could really talk to. He becomes a pilot, and one day his engine dies and he has to make an emergency landing in the desert. Things are bleak: little food or water, extreme heat. He sleeps. When he opens his eyes he sees an extraordinary young person in a long, flowing robe.
This little man’s request: Draw me a sheep! After a couple failed attempts, our narrator draws a box, which pleases the Little Prince, who can see the sheep sleeping inside the box, and is glad that his sheep will have a house to live in. This makes our narrator sad, as he cannot see the sheep. “I have had to grow old,” he sighs.
The Little Prince is from a very small asteroid, and has journeyed far. His planet is so small that to watch a sunrise, all he has to do is move his chair a few feet until the sun pops back up over the horizon. “What a dull world you inhabit,” he says, “with only one sunset a day!”
There’s some subtle and not-so subtle Christian allegories in this book. The Little Prince worries about the weed-like baobab shoots, which, like sins, start small but if allowed to grow, threaten to overwhelm his tiny planet. One must nip the sin in the bud, as it were. This is why he needs the sheep.
But there’s a catch. The Prince is also very much in love with a rose. The sheep that will eat the baobab seeds will also eat his rose, thorns and all. So why do roses bother to grow thorns if the sheep will eat them anyway? This ‘theological’ question is of great importance to the Little Prince. For we need both sheep and roses in the world, he thinks. The Little Prince is quite distraught. So our narrator draws a muzzle for the sheep, and the Little Prince is satisfied.
I don’t know quite what to make of the sheep and rose allegory. Perhaps we must be careful in ‘eradicating the bad’ that we do not also ‘destroy the lovely.’
Anyway, The Little Prince waters and cares for his rose, and loves it, but the flower grows vain and needy, and expects to be cared for all the time. And so he doubts her, and is unhappy. When his sadness overwhelms him, he runs away from his little home.
And so begins his journey, his spiritual quest. He visits many little planets, each inhabited by a person with a particular way of failing to be happy. It’s kind of a ‘seven deadly sins tour’, each world a little lesson on how one can ‘grow old’.
On the first planet lives a king who expects everyone to worship him. He is full of Pride, yet he is utterly alone. He ermine robe completely fills the planet, so that there is no room for anyone else. When asked “Over what do you rule?” the King replies, “Over everything, even the stars.” Yet he cannot command a single sun set, while the Little Prince has as many as he likes. “The grown-ups are very strange,” he concludes.
On the second planet lives a conceited man. His sin is Vanity. To him, all others are admirers. The man orders the Little Prince to salute him. At first the Little Prince is full of joy. But the man can see nothing but admirers, and can hear nothing but praise. He is blind and deaf to joy. The Little Prince quickly grows tired of this game. “The grown-ups are certainly very odd,” he says.
On the third planet lives a tippler. His sin is Gluttony. He drinks to forget, to forget that he is ashamed, for he is ashamed of his drinking. A vicious, never ending cycle. This time the grown-ups are “very, very odd.”
On the fourth planet lives a businessman. His sin is Greed. He is forever counting. He is counting the stars, and calls them “Little glittering objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming.” He thinks by counting the stars, he owns them. He cannot fathom that the stars belong to no one. “The grown-ups are certainly altogether extraordinary,” says the Little Prince.
On the fifth planet there is only a lamplighter and a single lamp, which he dutifully lights over and over. Yet although the planet rotates so fast that it has 1,440 sunsets a day, he cannot enjoy them. He is only following orders. Nevertheless the Little Prince admires him for being faithful, for being concerned about something besides himself.
On the sixth planet lives a geographer. He catalogs everything, oceans and mountains, and everything in between, yet has never seen a one. He thinks a thing only becomes real when it has been written down. When told that the Prince would next visit the Earth, the geographer says a curious thing: “The planet Earth has a good reputation,” at least to him.
And so the seventh planet is our Earth, which is very big, and where we have 2 billion people, and not 1, but 462 thousand lamplighters. And yet when the Little Prince lands in the Sahara desert, there are no people. He is puzzled. He notes how lonely it is without people. “It is lonely among people too,” he is told.
The Little Prince walks along until he comes to a walled garden with roses. He is saddened, because he had thought his rose was unique in the whole universe, yet here are so many identical ones. A fox appears, under an apple tree. The fox will act as a kind of wisdom teacher to the Little Prince.
The fox would like to be tamed. To the fox, the Little Prince is like all other little boys, nothing special, and to him the fox is like all other foxes. “But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. Then you will be unique in all the world, and I shall be unique to you.” The Little Prince realizes that his rose has tamed him. He loves her, and that makes her special, unique in all the world. “It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Yours will call me, like music.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” says the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.”
So the Little Prince tames the fox. And when he must continue his journey, the fox cries, for now he knows sadness. Before parting, the fox tells the Little Prince a secret:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. It is the time that you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important. Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.”
Wandering back into the desert the Little Prince meets our unfortunate pilot. And here’s where we start to see some parallels to Jesus’s own journey upon our little planet.
Our narrator is dying of thirst. “We will find a well,” says the Little Prince. Our narrator thinks this absurd. He is full of doubt and despair. How will we find a well in the immense desert? They wander through the night, out of water, terribly thirsty. “I am thirsty too,” says the Little Prince. “Water is also good for the heart.” But our narrator does not understand.
As they walk through the night, facing certain death in the heat of the morning, the Little Prince tells this wonderful parable:
“The stars are beautiful because of a flower that cannot be seen. The desert is beautiful, and what makes it beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Our narrator is reminded of the house he grew up in. He was told that it hid a treasure, and although he never found it, it cast an enchantment over the house.
“Yes,” says the Little Prince. “The house, the stars, the desert – what gives them their beauty is something that is invisible.” And so the man carries the Little Prince through the night, and they find the well at daybreak. They are saved.
“I am thirsty for this water,” says the Little Prince. Our narrator raises the bucket to his lips and says “This water is indeed a different thing from ordinary nourishment. Its sweetness is born of the walk under the stars, the effort of my arms. It is good for the heart, like a present.” And so he understands.
The Little Prince revives, and continues his parable. “Men do not know what they are looking for. They rush about, they get excited, and they turn around and around. The men of your world raise five thousand roses in the same garden – and they do not find in it what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water. But the eyes are blind, one must look with the heart.”
Now the story takes on the themes of death and resurrection, with obvious hints to Jesus’s own story. It is certainly not your typical children’s book ending.
The Little Prince says that he came to Earth exactly one year ago on this very spot. He sends our narrator away, to repair his engine, saying to return the following night. The pilot knows he cannot get it working in one day, but the Little Prince is quite insistent. Our narrator is filled with foreboding, but does as he is told.
Now before the Little Prince a golden snake appears. He claims to have great powers. “Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence he came, but you are innocent and true, and you come from a star. I can help you, if you grow too homesick for your own planet.”
The following evening our narrator returns, his plane repaired. The Little Prince is sitting on a wall. He is speaking to something unseen. Our narrator overhears: “You have good poison? It will not make me suffer too long?” Then man runs, frightened, and sees the deadly snake scurry away.
The Little Prince tells the man that he is glad his plane is fixed, that he can now go home. “I too, am going back home. It is much farther, and more difficult.” The man weeps, but the Little Prince says, “I have your sheep, and I have the sheep’s box, and I have the muzzle.” Our narrator is distraught, so the Little Prince gives him a gift, the gift of his laughter. He says:
“The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen. If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the night sky. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers. And at night you will look up, and you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens. For some, the stars are guides, for others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For them all the stars are silent. You – you alone – will have the stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing. You – only you – will have stars that can laugh!”
“Tonight, do not come,” he pleads. “I shall look as if I’m suffering. I shall look a little as if I were dying. Do not come to see that.” “I shall not leave you,” our narrator tells him three times.
That night our narrator follows, disobeying the Little Prince. “It was wrong of you to come. I shall look as if I were dead, and that will not be true. It is too far. I cannot carry this body with me. It is too heavy. All the stars will be wells. All the stars will pour out fresh water for me to drink.”
Then there is a flash of gold on his ankle. The Little Prince does not cry out. “He fell as gently as a tree falls. There was not even a sound.” He is gone.
As so our Narrator returns home. He knows the Little Prince has returned to his planet, with the sheep and the muzzle, to his beloved flower. He is comforted, but saddened too, for he realizes that he did not draw a strap on his muzzle, and wonders if the sheep will eat the rose after all. His life has been forever changed, now that he knows this to be a matter of great importance.
So what can we take away from this story? A mystical traveler teaches our narrator a lesson in faith. He teaches us to stop seeing with only our eyes. For if we do, we will become ‘Grown Up’, blind to what lies beneath the surface. But grown up or not, we must try to see with the heart. To see as a child sees. It may be difficult, but we can do it.
Learn how to love. Learn how to be loved. Know that caring for a single flower is a matter of great consequence. Our grown up world is very small, it seems to me. There are great vistas we miss out on, wide and wondrous landscapes, made beautiful by what cannot at first be seen, the well hidden in the desert.
And isn’t that the essence of faith?