Long ago when the world was young and many of today’s clever things had not yet been thought of, there was a king who had a son to whom he was greatly attached.  So solicitous was he that he had the whole palace carpeted with sheepskins, to protect the royal baby feet from the hardness of the floors (shoes had not yet been invented).  When he got a little bigger, the child wanted to romp outside, so his father gave orders to carpet the entire grounds of the palace with sheepskins.  This meant that many hundreds of sheep had to be slaughtered, but nothing was too much when it came to the little prince’s comfort.  When the prince was seventeen years old his father arranged to send him on business to another kingdom, and ordered that his path should be carpeted in the usual way.  The man in charge of the sheep was distraught at the prospect of so much slaughter, and he went away quietly to think what he could do.  Next day he returned, and his eyes were bright with intelligence.  He went to the king and said, “Your Majesty, instead of slaughtering thousands of sheep why don't we kill just one, and cut out two patches of its hide, and attach them to the prince’s feet?”  The king, being an intelligent man, saw the wisdom of this immediately; and so it was done.  And that is how shoes were invented. 

Many inventions, as we know, turn out to have a wider application than appeared at first.  Generalising the insight that gave rise to the world’s first pair of shoes, you could state the following:

  • A small change in yourself is equivalent to a big change in reality.
  • Unless you change yourself, all the other changes you bring about will be pointless and repetitive. 

Alcibiades, a vain young man in ancient Greece, told Socrates that he was off to see the world.  “You will not see it,” said Socrates, “unless you leave Alcibiades at home.”  You will not only be unable to change anything, you will not even be able to see anything clearly unless you change yourself.

But why change?  Am I not all right as I am?

Yes!  But everything is changing continually, and if you stop you will be in the way.   In sober reality you too are changing, whether you like it or not; you are getting older every hour; you are on the high seas and the wind is blowing; how could you dream of remaining unchanged?  To live is to change, someone said, and to live deeply is to have changed much.  You are changing, never fear!  The trouble is that you are not changing enough: you are continually defending yourself, and defending everything you ever did, always trying to prove that you are right.  You don't need to do that!  If  you try to change other people (and things) without changing yourself, the results will be disastrous.  The greatest damage is done to the world by revolutionaries who want to change everything except themselves.  This is the boring thing about revolutions: the wheel does the full circle and the revolutionaries become in turn the oppressors.
            Hurrah for revolution and cannon-shot!
            A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
            Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
            The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.
                                                                            W. B. Yeats

Change is always ambiguous, never more so than when I try to change myself.  The problem is this ‘I’ that changes according to its own standard.  That standard may be high or low, but it is certainly partisan; it is my idea of who I am, and my idea of who I want to be.  When I have changed according to my own idea of change, it is likely that the change is more apparent than real; there still has been no leave-taking, no abandonment of the self. 

The Gospel says eternal life is “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17).  This is the only revolution that can work, because it begins by challenging that persistent ‘I’ and all its plans for itself.  “When you were young,” said Jesus to Peter, “you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go” (John 21).

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.