Sometimes I am a stranger to a cheerful contented heart. It’s usually when I’ve become unmoored from God’s promises and drift towards the well-watered plains of my neighbor’s easy life or Endless Vacation magazine that arrived in the mail yesterday from who knows where or the colorful, sleek, minimalist Apple advertisement that greeted me this morning before I even made it to the kitchen for a cup of Chai.
My memory fails to remind me at these moments that the watered plains didn’t work out so well for Lot, nor will they for me. But then the Holy Spirit does His quiet work—You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
God, keep me on the path of life, in your presence, in your joy.
The story is told of a rich king who always wanted more and his search for a contented man who possessed the cure for the king’s ailment. It goes something like this.
Once upon a time there was a king who ruled a vast kingdom. Most of what he owned in lands and forests and livestock and palaces he had inherited from his father, who had been a much greater king than his son. But the son desired to be the equal of his father, so he burdened his subjects with onerous taxes.
One day his wife, the queen, noticed a rash on his arms and asked him what had caused this malady. The king looked at the red blotches with dismay and couldn’t explain their origin.
“I must have developed the rash in my sleep last night,” the worried king explained. I’m sure my arms were perfectly normal before I retired to my chamber last evening.”
“I think you should call the physicians at once,” his wife replied with a certain insistence in her tone that the king was not accustom to hearing. This only made him more anxious as he continued to examine the change in his skin. He didn’t say so, but he thought the spots were growing before his eyes.
So the physicians came one by one and investigated this strange mystery. The pricked and they probed. They prodded and they poked. Then they put their pointy heads together and began to deliberate. What a sound they made in the halls of the palace! The king and queen watched from afar but couldn’t help but hear the mutters and whistles and screeches and gasps that the little circle of healing practitioners made. Finally, the king and queen could hold their peace no longer.
“We demand that you tell us this instant what you have concluded,’’ they raged.
The little circle slowly opened and out walked the chief physician. He had the pointiest head of all and apparently didn’t give much thought to his attire because his tattered coat was too short for his long-waisted body and his socks were mismatched. But the king didn’t notice nor did he care.
“Your Highness,” the chief physician began while bowing in the king’s presence. “I’m afraid the news is unfavorable. You have a very rare condition that hasn’t been seen in this kingdom for over 200 years. I recall reading of it when I was a young lad in apothecary school. There is only one cure for what ails you and that cure is rare indeed.”
“What is it, man. Why are you talking in riddles. I’m the king and I demand a cure immediately,” the red-faced sovereign barked.
“Sire, I desire nothing more than to see you cured of these strange red lesions. But the cure requires that you wear the shirt of a contented man, and contented men are so rare in this kingdom that I fear a cure will never be found.” The physician’s pointed head wagged back and forth as he spoke these words. He fixed his eyes on the floor in order to avoid looking into the king’s face.
If he had looked at it, he would have noticed the king’s countenance change dramatically. With a hushed, almost despairing voice, the king sighed out a decree that all nobles of the kingdom mount their steeds and ride through the land seeking a contented man. If found, they were to return immediately with the contented man’s shirt, the only cure for the king’s ailment.
“Surely there must be one contented man in my kingdom,” he said unconvincingly to himself.
The king knew in his heart that his prospects were bleak. He knew for certain that he had never experienced contentment, and his nobles, why, they were always squabbling over lands and titles. If they couldn’t be content with all their possessions, where on earth would he find a man who truly was? As he continued reasoning this way, he became more and more discouraged.
“What will become of me?” he moaned.
Villagers began gathering in their town squares to read the king’s newest decree. “A contented man,” they laughed. “The king must be joking. Who could be content with all the taxes we have to pay every year. Why, we can’t even feed our families on what’s left to us.”
These kind of scenes multiplied as the nobles spread the news of the king’s ailment and desperate need for a cure. Eventually, the nobles gave up and one by one returned to the palace with the melancholy news of their failure to find the cure.
There was one young noble, however, who was unwilling to give up the search. He knew that most of the king’s subjects lived in villages, but maybe, he thought, a hermit or two might live in the woods. It was a novel idea, but an idea just the same, and the noble headed north to explore the great forest.
He hesitated as he approached the expanse of dark green foothills. Maybe I’m on a fool’s errand, he thought. Maybe I should just return home. But he shook off the gloominess and broke into a trot towards the dark unknown.
After a few days of searching, he reluctantly admitted to himself that his idea had been a pipe dream and the time had come to return home. But as he was thinking these thoughts, he suddenly noticed smoke a short distance away. This aroused his curiosity since smoke in a forest was usually an alarming thing to see. He quickly dismounted his horse, who was hesitant to go any further, and cautiously made his approach. To his surprise, sitting at a small flaming fire was a man frying some fish. They both looked at each other for a moment and said nothing. The nobleman broke the silence by clearing his throat.
“I’m here representing the king,” he explained. “The king has developed a mysterious ailment and its only cure is the shirt of a contented man.”
The woods-dweller looked at the nobleman and then turned back to attend his dinner. After an awkward silence, the hermit looked at the stranger again and offered him some fish.
“I’ve been living in these woods for 20 years,” the hermit mused, as if talking to himself. “I’ve never gone hungry or thirsty, no, not even for a day. The God of heaven has cared for me just as He does the little birds in that nest.” As the man spoke these words, he pointed towards a nearby tree.
“Believe it or not,” the hermit continued, but then paused while lifting another piece of fish out of the pan while offering it to his visitor, “Well, all I can say is,” he muttered as he tried to recollect his thoughts, “Well, all I can say is I’m a thankful man.”
“Sir,” the noble exclaimed with a hint of excitement in his voice, “You are just the man I’ve been searching for. You are the only contented man I’ve every met. I can’t tell you how pleased the king will be when he finds out his cure has been located. You will be the most honored man in the kingdom. Don’t think me rude, sir, but I must make haste and return to the palace at once. Please locate your shirt and give it to me so that I can begin my trip without delay.”
“Shirt?” the woodsman asked. “I have no shirt. I’ve never had need of a shirt here in the woods. I love the feel of the wind on my back and the rain on my chest.” The woodman closed his eyes and smiled as if he were experiencing the sensations he had just described. A few seconds later he opened his eyes again only to see the nobleman situated on his mount.
“Friend!” he called out as the horse and rider departed. “Is there something else I can offer for your king?” No answer came as the woods dweller watched the nobleman disappear into the dark forest never to be heard from again.