According to an old story, when the great library of Alexandriaburned, one book was saved. It wasn’t a valuable book, so it was boughtby a poor man, who could read a little, for a few coppers. It wasn’t a veryinteresting book, but there was something interesting in it: a thin strip ofvellum on which was written the secret of the “Touchstone.” The touchstone was a small pebble that could turn any common metalinto gold. The writing explained that this remarkable pebble wassomewhere on the shores of the Black Sea, lying among millions of otherpebbles that looked exactly like it. It was, however, possible todistinguish the touchstone from all others, for it felt warm to the touch,while all the other pebbles felt cold.
So the man who had purchased the book sold his few belongings,bought some supplies, camped on the Black Sea shore, and began testingpebbles. He knew that if he picked up ordinary pebbles and threw themdown again because they were cold, he might pick up the same pebblehundreds of times. So, when he felt one that was cold, he threw it intothe sea. He spent a whole day doing this without finding the touchstone.He spent a month, a year, three years, and still did not find thetouchstone. Yet he went on and on this way. Pick up a pebble. It’s cold.Throw it into the sea, and so on. But one morning he picked up a pebblethat was warm. . . .He threw it into the sea. He had gotten so into thehabit of throwing the stones into the sea, that when the one he waslooking for finally came along. . . .he threw that one away as well.
Living, as we do, in an information age, words have rained down onus all our lives. We couldn’t possibly pay attention to them all. But in thecourse of our lives, we have tested some of the words, and found themto be worthless: sales pitches and shampoo directions, soap operas andsituation comedies, slogans on street hoardings, and recipes on cans ofsoup. And so, as a survival mechanism, we have become deaf and blindto words. Oh, most of us can see and hear them well enough, but wehave learned to dismiss them, and ignore them.
It is in this condition that we encounter the Word of God, the wordof life. And if we are governed by the habit of a lifetime, we will casuallytest it and by reflex throw it away, before we have had time to realizewhat we have done — what we have lost. It is in this sense that we needJesus to open our eyes and clear our ears, so that we will hear the word,and hold on to it for dear life. For compared to it, everything else isdross.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”