Eleven Swans & the One Thing Needful

Robert Bateman, Trumpeter Swans and Aspen

Trumpeter Swans and Aspen by Robert Bateman, 1975

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the “one thing necessary” may be in our lives and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.
~~Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island


Far away in the land to which the swallows fly when it is winter, dwelt a king who had eleven sons, and one daughter, named Elise.

As Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Wild Swans, begins, the twelve children are happy and well-loved and play all day in their beautiful castle.  Enter the Wicked Stepmother.  She banishes Elise to a distant village, and turns the eleven princes into wild swans who must dwell in a land far across the ocean.

It is many years and a great ocean away before Elise and her brothers meet again. She prays that she may learn how to save them from the curse, and one night in a dream, she’s given the answer. She must gather large quantities of stinging nettle  – the kind which grows on graves in a churchyard – and beat it with her hands and feet until it becomes flax. From this, she must knit eleven long-sleeved coats, and when she throws the completed coats over the swans, the spell will be broken. But from the moment she commences her task until it is finished, even if it occupies years of her life, she must not speak.  The first word she utters “will pierce the hearts of her brothers like a deadly dagger.”

When she wakes from her dream, Elise gives thanks to God and immediately begins to gather the nettle and beat it into flax.  It is terribly painful to work with, but she has no thought of stopping.  For Elise, freeing her brothers has become the one thing necessary.

Elise is discovered knitting in her cave by a group of huntsmen, one of whom is the very handsome king of the land.  He is smitten by her beauty and brings her back to the palace. Elise continues to knit in silence, but she has also begun to fall in love with the king.  He decides to marry her, which makes his archbishop furious as he believes that Elise is a witch who has enchanted the king. One night the archbishop follows her as she sneaks out of the castle to the ghoul-ridden graveyard to collect nettles, and he alerts the king. She cannot speak to defend herself, so she is condemned as a witch and sentenced to burn. Even as Elise is being taken in the cart to the burning place, she keeps the ten completed coats beside her and continues to work on the final one, praying as she knits.

As the angry crowd surges around her to carry her to the stake, suddenly eleven wild swans swoop low overhead, and Elise grabs the coats and flings them over each swan. They instantly transform into princes and proclaim their sister’s innocence. The king is overjoyed and marries her the next day. She is the bride of her beloved, the queen of the land, and her brothers are free.

By divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.

Last weekend, at a silent retreat on the coast, I spent a good deal of time thinking about the “Mary and Martha” passage from the gospel of Luke: Jesus answered, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about so many things, but there is only one thing needful, and Mary has chosen that good part.  And that led me to think about the Merton quote (at the top of this post).  Then watching a flock of Canada geese land on a nearby pond, I thought of the Andersen tale.

What strikes me in all three is the idea of singleness of vision, the undivided heart.  The Andersen tale demonstrates the full hidden-in-plain-sight “secret” of the path of transformation:  self-giving love, single-pointed attention, deep intention, surrender.  These are the means by which seeking becomes finding and longing becomes union.

In the case of both Mary in the gospel story and Elise in the tale, it is love that engenders the single-heartedness.  Elise’s love for her brothers and wish to free them from the curse supersedes everything: her own comfort, her own possibilities for a happy life, even her own survival.  As in the deepest practice of saint and mystic, she has set her goal and then detached from it. She surrenders the outcome to God, and gives her full attention to the task as it unfolds in the present moment.  Stitch by stitch in silence and in love.

It is not only saints and mystics who walk this path. Athletes, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and others know the “secret” of  single-pointedness. Like Elise in the tale,  they commit to their goal, holding it in heart and will, but the singleness of attention stays with the step-by-step and day-by-day. With each scale mastered, with each muscle strengthened, with each word written or small breakthrough accomplished  – a container for transformation is being created.  Out of that furnace of love and simplicity of intention, a song, a cure, a bridge, a spaceship emerges.

Andersen’s fable demonstrates the greatest power of single-hearted action:  that the transformation it produces is not for the individual alone.  In the alchemy of love and will, what is created is thrown out over us all, and we are all made a little more true and a little more free.

For Elise herself, in doing the one thing necessary, she found more than she sought. She became queen of the beautiful kingdom and was joined to her beloved, the King.  For the mystic, of course, this is the goal beyond the goal; it is the deepest inner mystery of transforming union.

Behold, I show you a mystery: . . .We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. . . (1Cor 15:51)