Faithfulness and Lamplighters
What does it mean to be faithful? Does it mean always telling the truth to the people you love? Is it being monogamous? Perhaps it means obeying God. Can you be faithful to strangers? What about co-workers or employers?
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, a lamplighter is faithful to his orders. Every evening at sunset, he uses a torch to light a flame lantern. In the morning, at sunrise, he blows it out. The job started out pretty good, except that over the years, the revolutions of his tiny planet sped up until now a day lasts only one minute. This means the lamplighter can never rest. His work has become untenable.
Nonetheless, he fulfills his obligations to his employer, and to anyone on his planet who might care about having light in the darkness. He does not slack, though he longs for sleep. Still, he asks no questions and makes no demands. The man is incredibly faithful.
The Faithful and the Ridiculous
He is also ridiculous. After all, no one can be expected to work without ceasing, never taking a break, never sleeping, with no time to eat. Nothing lives on the planet except the lamplighter, so he carries out his orders for no one.
Even so, the little prince is touched, for the man is at least doing something worthwhile. “When he lights his streetlamp,” the little prince says to himself, “it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”  This is especially true when the little prince compares the lamplighter’s task to those carried out by some of the other individuals he discovered in his travels.
Saint-Exupéry’s book is full of little worlds on which lone individuals live, trying to create meaning from their isolated and empty existences. On one planet, a man counts stars, thinking that in this way he can own them. On another is a man who fancies himself a king and claims to rules over those same stars. A third planet holds a geographer who has no idea what his planet looks like because there’s no explorer to explore for him. They concern themselves with “matters of consequence,” but to the little prince, these matters are more frivolous than the lamplighter’s faithfulness.
The little prince himself, when he is at home, finds meaning in keeping his planet tidy, though unlike the business man he meets, he doesn’t allow the work to take over his life. The little prince knows how to sit and watch the sunrise. Sometimes he even smells the roses. Or the rose, to be exact, for only one flower grows on his world. Nonetheless, the little prince is loyal to this rose as if to a lover or a child. In his own way, he is faithful.
Faithfulness and Love
The little prince is faithful out of love. Before he leaves his world to visit other, he makes sure his rose is protected and his volcanoes well cleaned. While gone, he remembers his planet and thinks fondly about his flower. As he visits other planets, he learns about decadence, greed, ignorance, addiction, sorrow, busyness, and worry. He comes face to face with absurdity.
When he reaches earth, and comes across a garden of roses, he learns that his flower is not so special, and he feels sad. Meeting a pilot whose plane has broken down in the desert, the little prince asks him to draw him a sheep, yet when he discovers that sheep eat plants, even ones with thorns, he feels sadder yet. Remembering how vain and proud his flower is, the little prince feels even more tender and protective of her, for if she knew the truth of what she was, she would despair.
Missing his flower, the little prince resolves to go home with his sheep, asking the pilot to draw him a muzzle for the sheep so his rose will be safe. Ever faithful to her, the little prince takes seriously his responsibility as her caretaker. She, too, is faithful in her way. For whom does she live, if not the little prince? When he is there, she spreads her petals so he will have something beautiful to look at, which is one way she shows her love and is certainly what gives her life meaning.
Addiction as Faithfulness
If we think about it, we can see faithfulness in the business man who counts his stars, for he is faithful to what he believes is his wealth. The geographer who waits for an explorer to tell him what his planet is like is, for better or worse, faithful to the limitations of his job. The lamplighter is faithful to his orders. No matter how impossible his task has become, the lamplighter does not admit defeat, and he won’t demand justice, even for himself.
On one of the planets, the little prince visits a tippler. Every day, the man drinks and drinks. The little prince wonders why. The man explains that he drinks to forget. To forget what? That he is ashamed. Of what, the little prince wonders. Of drinking, the man admits. So we see the classic cycle of shame and guilt that, along with withdrawal symptoms and anxiety and a frontal lobe that’s been damaged by alcohol, keeps a tippler faithful to his drug. We are all faithful to one addiction or another. As he leaves the alcoholic to his fate, the little prince mutters how “very, very odd” it is.
Being Faithful and to Whom
When we get caught up in our addiction, we tend to lose our connection with something greater and deeper and more wondrous than ourselves. We lose touch with, and are no longer faithful to, our god. In The Little Prince, this magical book about a young being who appears one day in the Sahara Desert, we don’t see much of God. At least not directly.
Yet whenever we talk of purpose, value, relationship, and faithfulness, God – or whatever you think of as holy and ineffable – is there. God exists in the meaning of our life, the depth of our love, our willingness to follow through on promises no matter how inconvenient, contribute to the sacred beauty and perfection of our world.
Yes, we can be faithful to the wrong things, like money or jewelry or heroin or anorexia. Even our faithfulness to loved ones can become obsessive, like addictions themselves. Some of us are so faithful to ourselves, we never think of anyone else, and yet if we are never faithful to who we really are, we are no good to anyone, even ourselves.
How, though, should we be faithful to ourselves? Would this mean following our dreams? Knuckling down and making money so we have food to eat? Perhaps it would mean finding our truth, discovering our gifts, learning about our insecurities and improprieties and loving ourselves anyway. Faithfulness to ourselves, and to others, includes forgiveness. It means resting when we’re weary and working when we’re bored. It means exploring, growing, changing, challenging who we are, what we need, and who we should become.
Failure and Forgiveness
In the end, whether to our friends, our family, ourselves, God, our orders, or our planet, being faithful means we try to be honest in all we say and do, we follow through on tasks as much as we can, we do what we say we will, always remembering that sometimes we will fail, and when failure happens, we seek forgiveness, and we start again from where we are, not where we wish we could be. Trapped in a whirlwind of activity, the lamplighter knew how to be faithful to authority and to an unknown multitude who depended on his light. He did not know how to be faithful to himself. I wonder if he even had a concept of being faithful to God, because to be faithful to God, we must first slow down and listen.
Faithfulness to Our True Selves and to God
What does God ask of us? Who does God understand us to be? How does God interact with us? Can we be faithful enough and silent enough to hear God’s voice inside us?
I do not know what God is, or if “God” is at all. I do not believe in lamplighters on tiny planets, or little princes who love vainglorious flowers. Not literally, at least. Yet I believe in love, and I believe in light that shines through the darkness, and darkness that holds us in silence and peace, and I believe in beauty. Finally, I believe in the small, still voice that sounds like God or is God or knows God.
If we listen, that voice will guide us in who we need to be, keep us faithful to the truth of who we are, and encourage our faithfulness to our task, our loved ones, the poor and suffering, and our battered and broken world that desperately needs the faithfulness of every one of us. We might even say that in faithfulness is the salvation of our planet and all who live on it.
In faith and fondness,
- de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine, The Little Prince, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 59.
Photo Credit – Avi Agarwal from Unsplash