It’s an odd little story.
Trivial, even. This tale from the Kings.
Young prophetic apprentices approach the charismatic prophet.
“We love being with you, but the living quarters are way too small! We’re all constantly bumping into each other. We should build ourselves a proper seminary! How about we each go down to the river, each of us get a log, and build a place there?”
“Only if you will join us.”
They all go down to the river together.
They begin chopping down trees.
And amidst all of the cutting and chopping, calamity.
Or at least so it appeared to human eyes.
It was just an axe head, but it may as well have been a tractor.
Off the handle it flew
into the river
With one untoward movement of the hand
one unfortunate slip of the iron
more than iron sank
but also dreams
as debt and loss now loomed over a darkened horizon as a young man imagines the lowering face of what was no doubt a wealthy benefactor.
Payments due with interest from non-existing treasures
pockets turned out with only lint to offer.
How quickly our minds run to the worst.
If not in the company of a prophet it would perhaps be more off-colour,
for who of us would ever say, “Alas!”
“Ahhhhhhhh!” better captures the calamitous expression.
“It was borrowed!”
The prophet seems unfazed by panicked, darting eyes and breathless breath.
“Where did you last see it? Where did it hit the water?”
Taking him to the river he points to the place of loss, to oblivion.
Not a new one does he fashion or conjure
No fish caught with exact change in its mouth
No dramatic dive into the water to retrieve.
A stick, perhaps a castoff chip from the cutting is tossed over the place of loss, over oblivion.
And the axehead rises. Iron floats.
Young prophets stand with mouths agape and paralyzed feet, not believing any more than we.
“Well, what are you waiting for, go get it,” says the prophet.
And he reached out and took it.
Merton muses, “A beautiful piece of writing, with deep mystical and psychological implications—so that whether or not it is ‘historical’ is irrelevant. It awakens a kind of inner awareness of psychic possibilities which one so easily forgets and neglects.”
For many of us this is another throwaway story in what is increasingly a throwaway book. Myth. Fable. Child’s play. How foolish to believe we live in a universe where iron floats. Or virgins conceive, for that matter. Or bread multiples, or lepers are cleansed, or the blind receive sight, or stricken saviors rise. How tragic to believe in one where iron stays sunk. Where what is lost stays lost. Where oblivion defines us, and all we can do is stand by the river, staring into our loss, and ultimately, irretrievably, join it.
What a turn of daring to believe otherwise and join the prophet in his whimsy.
To stand by our river of loss
To reach for discarded twig or scrap of wood (no finely shaped cross required).
To toss it over the site of our loss and lament.
Though it takes a lifetime
and our eyes dim with the waiting
and we toss in enough twiggy prayers to dam the river
and when the iron of all that we’ve lost
to reach out