Sunday, October 9, 2011
The River (An Allegory)
Once upon a time in a land far away, a beautiful wood enclosed a wide, spacious meadow full of life and light. In the center sprang up the source: a fountain of pure water. Through this water, the flowers sprang up and smiled sweetly in their felicity. Through it, the fauns skipped, the rabbits hopped, the bees buzzed from plant to plant, the butterflies flitted lightly, and the birds soared in heavenly melody. The fountain shone with a light of it own that illumined everything in its proximity.
Springing from the fountain, out of the meadow, down the mountain, out of the wood, and into the valley the water flowed. Anyone who desired the water freely drank and was satisfied, his thirst quenched, his body refreshed, his countenance brightened, and his mind cleared. Many a thirsty traveler, upon entering the valley, saw and tasted the river; and once anyone had a drink of this water, nothing else could compare. Many built new homes on its banks, while other stayed for a while before making canteens to fill and carry with them on their journey.
Down in the valley, nestled among the people, lay a large pond. The oldest of the village’s many inhabitants claimed its source was a gooey spring of blackness at the very bottom. Cows and pigs and alligators and hippopotamuses and mosquitoes loved the pond. The people loved it, too; its shores held large crowds day and night, crowds of people who came to swim in the middle or to dance in the shallower parts. Every few days someone would lose an arm or a foot to the alligators. Mosquito bites covered them constantly; so that whenever they weren’t drinking or playing, they were scratching.
A few times a year a storm came, so that the pond rose a foot or two above its normal bounds. Then garbage from the nearby dump slid into the pool. The glass bottles and metal cans cut the people’s feet. Sometimes a person who couldn’t swim fell in, and of course there was no way to pull him out. If the truth were told, no one even paid attention. They were all too busy to notice their neighbors screaming as the alligators pulled off their flesh until they were caught in the whirlpool and drawn inescapably below, lost in the murky mud of the deep black pond. If the people could only have seen the pure, fresh river barely 1,000 feet away, they might have left the filth for a bath and refreshing drink. But that was just the problem: they couldn’t see.
Right from the start, the fountain wanted to bless the poor, blind people with its water, so it sent them gifts. First it stirred up strong winds to scatter the seeds of the trees and flowers so that the people of the pond could smell the meadow. Then it sent the birds to sing where the pond people could hear the meadow. They admired the beauty of these gifts, but few were awakened by them.
One man was different. A particularly violent storm swept his entire family into the deep, swirling waters,, and he found himself relatively alone. A friend waded along the edge with him to comfort him, but an alligator clamped his sharp teeth on this friend’s leg and pulled the man in. When he stepped closer to help his friend, another alligator slithered toward him. Crying out in desperation, he leaped back and scrambled up and up and far away until he finally sank down, heart pounding. He remained there, unmoving, numb, till dusk came and he felt more tired than ever before.
The fountain watched compassionately as the man sat dejectedly a few feet from the river. A gentle breeze rose up and fanned his dirty face. A bird sang softly. He laid down and rubbed his hand on the grass, noticing in surprise its extra softness here. And then he fell into a deep and peaceful slumber.
When he woke the next morning, he felt thirsty, but the thought of returning to the pond made him sick to his stomach. He stood to his feet and walked about. The ground sloped upward beneath his feet, and the sensations grew sweeter. His heart responded gladly, and he breathed deeply of the mountain air. Then a strange thing happened. Until this moment, he had assumed the world was naturally all black. But with his first breath of this air, he saw spots of color. The more he took in of it, the more he saw, until his eyes were as clear as yours and mine. Now he stopped and looked about him in great joy and amazement. It was all so new, and so richly beautiful. And there, at his feet, lay the river. He stared long and hard, then dropped slowly to his knees. It looked so fresh and good, but did he dare even touch it? Glancing down at his hands, he grimaced. Filthy.
He sadly raised his eyes and watched as a curious happenstance unfolded. A tiny sparrow, spattered with mud-spots, flew straight into the river, dipped down, flapped its wings, and drunk deeply before flying on as clean as clean could be. The river remained spotless.
The man lost no time, but plunged himself into the water, clothes and all. Rising, he saw his own reflection and knew that he was clean. He shouted and plunged in again, swam a ways, rolled over and over; and then as if just remembering his original purpose, he bent down and took a drink unlike anything he had ever tasted.
A few days’ journey up the mountain brought him to the meadow. A few days . . . and how much had changed! His other life, if he could call it that, was far behind. His whole mind and heart were full of this new life, the rier with its beauties and joys. Where did it come from? As he stepped out of the woods into the open meadow, he saw it: the fountain. It drew him near, and he watched joyfully as it gurgled and splashed and sweetened all around it. This was living! He felt as if he could stay here forever. For a while, he did stay.
One day, though, the time came from the fountain to send him to the people of the pond. He descended, always keeping to the side of the river, until he reached the bottom and looked to the distant pond. All he saw was a loud mess of muddy bodies. Not too long ago, he had been one of them.
He took a drink, filled his canteen, and walked to the pond. The stench was overpowering, and for the first time he saw the pond. He saw the blackness, the decayed bodies, the trash, the manure. How had he ever enjoyed drinking that mud?
Heartsick, he approached his old girlfriend, who failed to recognize him.
“Julie? It’s me. Don.”
“Oh, hi. You sound weird. Where’ve you been?”
“You won’t believe it, Julie! It’s the most amazing place ever - so clean, and bright, and the water was so pure.”
Julie laughed. “Sounds boring. You missed it. The last storm brought a big slide and another big board. We’ve been practicing our dives. C’mon.”
“No, thanks. Why don’t you come with me to the river?”
“What river? I don’t see any river. This might be the river right here.”
“But that’s just the beauty of it – your eyes will open the closer you get to the river.”
“What are you talking about? Wait. You’ve gotta be kidding me. Are you saying I’m blind? Get lost already. I’m gonna go have fun.”
Don almost followed her; his eyes did, full of the fountain’s compassion. But a wind whispered in his ear to let her go and to continue on his way. Don talked to several others, but each one gave the same response. Somewhat discouraged, he walked outside the edge of the crowd and talked to no one; instead, he merely looked at the people, covered in mud and mosquito bites, and listened to the terrible cries. O, why would they die? With the water from the fountain flowing freely so nearby, why – why would they die?
Rounding the bend, he saw an old man, skinny and shivering. “Sir! Sir, why are you sitting here all alone?”
“Young man, be grateful for your strength. The day will come when you’ll be old and feeble like me, and then you’ll die of thirst, too. You’ll be too weak to push through all the bodies. There was a time when I could do it. Not too long ago, either. But that was before . . .” And his voice trailed off as his eyes gazed, unseeing, into the far-away.
“Oh, but, sir, there is other water. Come with me, and I will lead you to drink of water like you’ve never tasted before in your life.”
“Much obliged, son, but I’m far too old.”
“Here. Get on my back, and I’ll carry you.”
“No. Thank you. But don’t trouble yourself.”
“But I mean it. Please. I would love to carry you to the river.”
After much persuading, the old man climbed onto Don’s back and the two travelled the little distance over the rough ground to the banks of the river. As they went, the old man’s senses deepened and when he finally sat beside that pure water, he breathed deeply in astonishment. Did his eyes really see what he thought they saw? He reached out a finger and watched as the water cleaned its tip instantly from the dried, caked-on mud. He slid both his feet down into the water and swung them back and forth like a little child. Laughing, he slipped down, down, down, till he was immersed in the clear, blue liquid.
The old man also travelled up the mountain. At first he could only crawl, holding to the trees and stopping often for a rest and river-drink. When he finally reached the summit and gazed upon the fountain, he knew he saw before him the answer to all his heart’s longing.
The fountain led him to rest a few days on the soft grass while the wind dropped healing leaves and flowers onto his diseased limbs. Some of his old strength returned, and he found himself ready for an adventure – a mission.
He stood slowly and turned to the fountain. “Send me. Where shall I go? Am I to return to the pond like Don?”
The rustling of the wind and the rushing of the water sounded in the old man’s ears and nudged him to the other side of the meadow. The branches of the trees pulled him and gently pushed him through the wood till he saw the open side of the hill.
The old man shaded his eyes as he watched several groups of people huddled around cisterns. Some of the cisterns were gray, dirty, rusty, and broken in a hundred pieces. Others were freshly painted, with plaster stuck in each of the cracks to stop the leaks. The people panted with thirst as they bent way down into the cisterns to sip a few drops of the rainwater inside. Some cisterns were sill half-full from the last rain, but the water was leaking fast.
The old man strode quickly to the nearest cistern and touched a man on the shoulder. “Sir, how would you like to drink from a river that will never run dry?”
“Oh, the river – isn’t it wonderful? I drank from there. The water is so good. You must be one of us.” And he smilingly clapped the old man on the back.
“But . . . if you’ve drunk from the river, why would you come live by this cistern and quench your thirst with its leaky water?”
“Oh, but this is just a hobby. I still drink from the river once a week, you know. But I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun, too. There’s nothing muddy about this water. Look how clean the cistern is.”
“But it’s not the river. You’re thirsty, son.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’ll rain soon. Just watch; you’ll see.”
The old man shook his head and walked on, often lifting his canteen to his lips and delighting in the refreshment it brought.
And so life went on for the people of Riverside (for that was the name of the country). One by one the mud dwellers slipped into the slime and jaws to rise never again. One by one the cistern drinkers emptily, thirstily wasted away under the burning sun. One by one Don and the old man led the heart-thirsty to the river of life.
“And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
And let him who hears say, “Come!”
And let him who thirsts come.
Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.”