"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Trumpet of Death

There was once a great and famous king: and it came to pass, when he was riding on a day in his golden chariot, with his royal guard, that there met him two men, clad in filthy rags, with fallen in faces, and pale as death. Now the king knew that it was by buffetings of the body and by the sweats of the monastic life that they had thus wasted their miserable flesh. So, seeing them he leapt anon from his chariot, fell on the ground, and did obeisance. Then rising, he embraced and greeted them tenderly. But his noblemen and counselors took offense thereat, deeming that their sovereign had disgraced his kingly honor. But not daring to reprove him to the face, they bade the king's own brother tell the king not thus to insult the majesty of his crown. When he had told the king thereof, and had upbraided him for his untimely humility, the king gave his brother an answer which he failed to understand.

It was the custom of that king, whenever he sentenced anyone to death, to send a herald to his door, with a trumpet reserved for that purpose, and at the sound of this trumpet all understood that that man was liable to the penalty of death. So when evening was come, the king sent the death-trumpet to sound at his brother's door who, when he heard its blast, despaired of his life, and all night long set his house in order. At day-break, robed in black and garments of mourning, with wife and children, he went to the palace gate, weeping and lamenting. The king fetched him in, and seeing him in tears, said, "O fool, and slow of understanding, how didst thou, who hast had such dread of the herald of thy peer and brother (against whom thy conscience doth not accuse thee of having committed any trespass) blame me for my humility in greeting the heralds of my God, when they warned me, in gentler tones than those of the trumpet, of my death and fearful meeting with that Master against whom I know that I have often grievously offended? Lo! then, it was in reproof of thy folly that I played thee this turn, even as I will shortly convict of vanity those that prompted thy reproof." Thus he comforted his brother and sent him home with a gift.

Then he ordered four wooden caskets to be made. Two of these he covered over all with gold, and, placing dead men's mouldering bones therein, secured them with golden clasps. The other two he smeared over with pitch and tar, but filled them with costly stones and precious pearls, and all manner of aromatic sweet perfume. He bound them fast with cords of hair, and called for the noblemen who had blamed him for his manner of accosting the men by the wayside. Before them he set the four caskets, that they might appraise the value of these and those. They decided that the golden ones were of greatest value, for, peradventure, they contained kingly diadems and girdles. But those, that were besmeared with pitch and tar, were cheap and of paltry worth, said they. Then said the king to them, "I know that such is your answer, for with the eyes of sense ye judge the objects of sense, but so ought ye not to do, but ye should rather see with the inner eye the hidden worthlessness or value." Whereupon he ordered the golden chests to be opened. And when they were thrown open, they gave out a loathsome smell and presented a hideous sight.
            
Said the king, "Here is a figure of those who are clothed in glory and honor, and make great display of power and glory, but within is the stink of dead men's bones and works of iniquity." Next, he commanded the pitched and tarred caskets also to be opened, and delighted the company with the beauty and sweet savor of their stores. And he said unto them, " Know ye to whom these are like? They are like those lowly men, clad in vile apparel, whose outward form alone ye beheld, and deemed it outrageous that I bowed down to do them obeisance. But through the eyes of my mind I perceived the value and exceeding beauty of their souls, and was glorified by their touch, and I counted them more honorable than any chaplet or royal purple." Thus he shamed his courtiers, and taught them not to be deceived by outward appearances, but to give heed to the things of the soul.

 The King's Brother, the Trumpet of Death, and the Four Caskets, from St. John Damascene, Barlaam and Ioasaph, The Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 71-77.

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