The Eighteenth Horse: 'Often, all God needs to bring new insights to birth are empty space and unrushed time.'

Max was an old man by the time I met him. He had known his share of pain during his long life; and though he was more than happy to regale any listener with stories from his youth, there were some no-go areas. There were some fierce knots in the colorful tapestry of his life that he would neither touch nor allow anyone else to touch. That was the deal with Max.

One thing he loved to do was confront you with mind-puzzles. In a happier age (and if he had not been expelled from high school for overly exuberant behavior), he might have been something of a mathematician. As it was, he liked to indulge his other talent—for clowning. Max was a joke waiting to happen. Easy to be with. Impossible to live with. A walking paradox. A puzzle in his own right.


One day he came up with the matter of the 18th horse. I do not know whether he figured my own merely feminine logic (he lived before the age of political correctness) would overlook the obvious flaws in the calculations involved in it. But the strange thing is that I have kept coming back to this particular brainteaser, sensing that it had something to tell me about God. Anyway, this is the story he told me.

Once upon a time there was a great nobleman. He lived in a castle and had three sons. He also owned a variable number of horses. It was impossible to predict how many of them there would be at any particular time, given that now and again old ones would die off and new foals would be born.

Eventually the nobleman died and left a will in which he stipulated the following. “When I die, my horses are to be divided among my three sons in the following proportions: My eldest son is to receive half of my horses. My second son is to receive one-third of my horses. My youngest son is to receive one-ninth of my horses. And no horse is to be either left over or chopped into parts to make the equation work.”

When the old man died there were seventeen horses. This left his sons with something of a difficulty. However much they wracked their brains, they could not make the problem work out. Finally in desperation they sought the help of a local wise man who lived in a cave not far from the castle. “I’ll come right over,” he promised, and soon the sound of galloping hooves was heard in the courtyard.

“Now,” said the wise one, tying up his own horse alongside the other 17, “let’s do the sums. ‘Half to go to the eldest son.’ Half of 18 is nine. ‘One-third to go to the second son.’ One-third of 18 is six. ‘One-ninth to go to the youngest son.’ One-ninth of 18 is two.” So the eldest son rode away with his nine horses, the second son with his six horses and the youngest son with his two horses. No horse was either left over or chopped into pieces. And the wise one rode back to his cave on his own horse—the 18th horse.

So the problem of the nobleman’s legacy was solved, but I was still left with the problem of why this silly story should still be lingering in my mind, demanding attention, many years later, long after Max had died.

I think I am beginning to crack it though. I notice that I not infrequently get into tangles in my mind that seem to have no logical solution. The worst kind of knots are those around relationship issues and moral dilemmas. Whatever you do, the sums just do not work out. Whichever course of action you choose, someone is going to be offended. However carefully you explain something, you know you are going to be misunderstood. Whichever route you follow, there are going to be serious compromises.

When this happens, I have started inviting the 18th horse into the equation. The 18th horse is simply there. He is not taking sides. He is not doing the working out for me. But by his very presence, he brings a whole new perspective to the matter in hand. Because of him, I can look at the whole issue differently. I used to think that maybe God is like the 18th horse. But now I am coming round to thinking that the 18th horse is actually more like prayer, reflective prayer, that does not demand solutions or black-and-white guidance but simply enfolds the whole problem in itself and allows you to sit with the question. Then, sometimes at least, like an over-tightened knot, something will loosen and give, and the whole thing will start to move again.

When problems seem intractable, and we ask ‘Where is God in all of this?’ it might be worth inviting the 18th horse into our consciousness. He will simply be there, infusing his wisdom into the tangle. And when the way forward starts to emerge, he will go away again. But he will always be on call, next time we get snarled up. What this means in practice, for me, is finding two things: a quiet space and some reasonable length of undisturbed time, and then simply sitting with God and the problem so that my heart and God’s heart together can hold the questions and make room for new perspectives. That is often all God needs to bring new insights to birth: empty space and unrushed time.

God, of course, never goes away, but our awareness of God comes and goes. The 18th horse of reflective prayer is always on call, to enlighten the smallest and the largest of questions, including the very big question that many America readers will be addressing next week. You might even choose to give him a permanent stable in your heart.

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