A fable from one of the few writers of Christian fiction to publish in the mainstream press, more recently known for his ongoing spiritual autobiography, The Sacred Journey (1982), Now and Then (1983), and Telling Secrets (1991).
Buechner's fable is based on the apocryphal book of Tobit, an account of early Judaism from the second century b.c., when the Jews were an enslaved people. Raphael, one of the seven archangels, narrates Buechner's gentle story with humor and frequent asides about the nature of the Holy One. Raphael's task is to gather up prayers and carry them to God, then carry replies back if replies must be made. This results in some extraordinary passages: the prayer of a dog, for instance, to better please his master, and that of a gigantic fish, in gratitude for the mud and weeds around him. But two prayers in particular form the basis for Raphael's sojourn on Earthand for Buechner's story. A young woman, Sarah, loves her father so dearly that she doesn't want to be married, and summons a demon who, on her seven wedding nights, kills each of seven bridegrooms. But Sarah is so filled with guilt over these deaths that she prays to God to be killed. Meanwhile, a poor blind man, Tobit, also prays for death, to relieve his miseries and to allow his family to resume normal life. He enjoins his son to undertake a perilous journey both to retrieve a fortune and to find a wife. The son, the amiable, less-than-brilliant Tobias, dutifully starts off. Raphael then joins him, securing the fortune and helping Tobias to court Sarah, devising antidotes both for demons and for the blindness of Tobit.
Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, emphasizes the goodness of God, playing down suffering, playing up faith. A slight tale, though often quite charming.
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I am Raphael, one of the seven Archangels who pass in and out of the presence of the Holy One, blessed be he. I bring him the prayers of all who pray and of those who don't even know that they're praying.
Some prayers I hold out as far from me as my arm will reach, the way a woman holds a dead mouse by the tail when she removes it from the kitchen. Some, like flowers, are almost too beautiful to touch, and others so aflame that I'd be afraid of their setting me on fire if I weren't already more like fire than I am like anything else. There are prayers of such power that you might almost say they carry me rather than the other way round -the way a bird with outstretched wings is carried higher and higher on the back of the wind. There are prayers so apologetic and shamefaced and halfhearted that they all but melt away in my grasp like sad little flakes of snow. Some prayers are very boring.
Would it surprise you to know that when I'm not carrying prayers, I often shake with laughter? It is the world that I laugh at and never more heartily than when I bring to mind the story that in good time I will tell you.
It is the story of a journey and a fish and a boy. It is the story of a demon with hair like a' woman's and a lion's teeth, and of a chatterbox of a wife and a slender, dark-haired girl who loved her father. It is the story of a twitter of sparrows who never for a moment doubted that their chalky droppings were a gift for the world to treasure, and of a dog with the eyes of a saint and a lavender tongue, and of two bags of silver with their seals unbroken. And it is the story of how I gotmyself up as a young globe-trotter with a stout pair of boots and a sack full of road maps. You will say that they didn't have such things as stout boots and road maps in ancient Assyria, and the chances are you are right, but when you have seen as many Assyrias come and go as I have, you tend to lose track of details.
I say I will tell the story "in good time," by which I mean two things. First, I mean that eventually I will tell it. I mean that through all its twists and turns I will bring it to an end at last. Second, I mean that time itself is good, even the times when the dung heaps of Nineveh were littered with the variously strangled, eviscerated, dismembered cadavers of those imprudent enough to catch the bloodshot eye of Shalmaneser, or Sennacherib, or Esarhaddon, or whatever sociopath happened to be sitting on the throne at the moment with his face all but lost in the oily black ringlets of a lamb's-wool beard and on either hand a winged bull higher than a house who looked just like him.
The things that the world fills time with are enough to turn the heart to stone, but the goodness of time itself is as untouched by them as the freshness of a spring morning is untouched by the yelps from the scaffold. Time is good because the Holy One made it that way and then set the heavenly bodies wheeling through the sky so there would always be a way of marking its passage. Unfortunately, not even the most devout understand this for more than possibly a day or two out of the entire year when everything seems to be going their way. The rest of the year they go around like everybody else rolling their eyes and expecting terrible things to happen. When terrible things do happen, they fail to understand that for the most part they have brought them down on their own heads. They prefer to think that it is time itself that is terrible and that the terrible things are only another method by which the Holy One afflicts them for their sins.
Take Tobit for instance. He was blind as a bat when Anna, his wife, insulted him, but he rolled his eyes anyway because she had told him he was a fool, and he suspected that she might be right and that the Holy One agreed with her. She stood in the kitchen with her lower lip thrust forward in the way that she had and dressed him down so thoroughly that you would never have guessed that in her heart she was quite fond of him. She herself did not guess it, so carried away she was by the force of her own eloquence. Every month or so she was in the habit of doing something new and implausible with her hair because it was a way of using up some of her unspent energy. On this occasion she had dyed it as black as the king's beard and, except for a few corkscrew curls around her ears, had piled it high on her head with the use of some bone pins and a pair of ivory combs that one of the rich women she worked for had given her in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity. Not noticing the dog as she stormed out of the kitchen, she tripped over him. He was a large, mild-mannered dog with a coat as shaggy and gray as smoke who belonged to her son, Tobias. When he leapt to his feet to get out of her way, he knocked over a table piled with dirty dishes, and Tobit, who of course could see nothing of what had happened, concluded not unreasonably that she was in the process of adding to her insult by pulling the house down about their ears. It was the last straw, and once she had left, he groped his way through the wreckage to the outhouse behind the vine-covered wall in the courtyard, which a few years earlier had been the scene of his blinding. It was there that he uttered a prayer.... On the Road with the Archangel. Copyright © by Frederick Buechner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.