The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

In India one day I found myself hurtling into the bowels of the earth in a tiny elevator with just enough room for our small group and a large, teetery pile of gas cans leaking fumes into the cramped space. I wouldn’t have called it safe, but I was heading into a working goldmine, so I kept my concerns to myself, and just tried not to bump a can or breathe too much. Mercifully, the elevator was lightning fast, so the ride was relatively short, considering the stunning depth we reached.

I should probably admit that I don’t particularly enjoy tight spaces. I once saw a video of a hotel in Japan where guests climbed ladders to sleep in tubes set into the walls, not so different from a stack of coffins. I’ve never seen it in person, but the idea alone is enough to give me the willies even now, years later. As the guard opened the elevator door in India, I was worried about how I would feel once I was in the mine itself, probably a throwback to Saturday morning cartoons when every other week Scooby Doo found himself speeding through a tight abandoned mine shaft in an ore cart, chased by a naughty neighbor in a monster costume. Fortunately, the reality proved rather more pedestrian. The shaft had a high ceiling, the large room ranging from brightly lit to near twilight, a sort of pleasantish earthen dungeon full of workers busily filling ore carts to be sifted topside, no gold gleaming anywhere.

Back up the elevator and onto the surface, we walked through the whole operation, no hardhats, or protective equipment, just observers trying to keep our feet out of the muck, and strange anomalies to the workers shoveling wet sludge into the hoppers. Near the end of the tour we walked to the mouth of a giant room with concrete walls, and watched as two or three men poured red, liquid gold into a form. The foreman gave us an appraising look, and whispered to our friend, “Bring them back in twenty minutes, and they can hold it.”

I couldn’t believe it would really come true, but indeed, twenty minutes later we presented ourselves in the doorway, and out came a man carrying a large bar of solid gold. He put it into my hands, unpolished, glimmering with a satin sheen, and still warm to the touch. It was so heavy, I even can’t imagine how much money I was holding at that moment, but it didn’t particularly matter. I appreciated it as I would a Rembrandt at the Louvre.

I’ve thought many times about that bar of gold and the labor it cost all those men toiling in the mine, wondered if it was worth it. I suppose I could launch into a diatribe about corporate greed profiting on the labor of the masses, but I looked carefully at the men’s faces as they worked. In fact, I still remember some of them, and the curious way they looked back at me. Corporate greed may have opened the mine, but I suspect many of the jobs it created also fed families and offered beds to children who otherwise might have none. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears, and it’s possible that the warm bar of gold in my hands is one of the more fraught and complicated objects humans can produce.

To be honest, I don’t feel like writing today. On Saturday our family lost a friend to Covid, taken from his wife and two small children, so young they won’t remember his big smile or infectious laugh. My heart is breaking for his family, but I can’t talk about that. Instead I will talk about a bar of gold, dredged from the earth and still warm from the crucible.

If a group of men brought their ore carts and pickaxes, and began mining through my heart, what would be extracted from the rubble and poured into bars in the large concrete room at the end of each day? Would it be gold, gathered fleck by fleck from the experiences of my life, or would they find an endless pile of slag, junk metal with neither strength or value.

Slag is not just worthless, it can be dangerous. Belated examination revealed there was far too much slag in the rivets and siding of the Titanic, considered so grand and well-designed they said God couldn’t sink her. Tragically, on her maiden voyage, the slag met an iceberg and proved itself the fatal weakness. The ship God couldn’t sink went down in 160 minutes. In the previous ten years the White Star Line had carried 2,179,594 passengers across the ocean, suffering only 2 losses of life, but that changed on April 15, 1912 when 1,517 lives slipped into the water, never to return. It happened so fast, no chance to say goodbye, too few minutes to repent and reform, not enough time to give anything a final polish.

The gold bar I held was not mined in a giant nugget. I was down inside the shaft, and I could see the walls were ordinary dirt, not so unlike a human body, cobbled together from bits of elements and minerals, which taken separately are worth little more than pocket change. Yet through sifting and crushing and sorting, that ordinary-looking dirt room produced nothing less than a heavy bar of gold, purified in a red-hot crucible.

Saturday my friend lost her husband, and her children lost their father. Yet God welcomed home a beloved and much missed son, his spirit still warm from the crucible of mortality, gold refined and taken from the earth, no chance for him to say goodbye or give anything a final polish. We have paid dearly for all that wealth, but I’ve noticed that God has a way of multiplying his riches and spreading them generously among his children in ways we may not comprehend with our mortal eyes, which brings me back to my earlier question. Is it all worth it? I believe my sweet friend would smile at me through her pain and say, “Yes.”

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