The King was tired. The King was bored. The King felt miserable all the time. Sweet tasted like sour to him, and fresh bread tasted like old straw. His beautiful gardens seemed dingy, the birds kept maddeningly singing the same old songs, and he couldn’t see the point of signing all those pieces of paper every day. He had trouble sleeping at night, because there was nothing worth dreaming about; and he had trouble getting up in the morning because there was nothing really worth getting up for. The Physician said he should eat more carrots and green vegetables; the Major-General said he should go riding with the guards every day. The Prime Minister just looked shocked – he couldn’t imagine a world where one wasn’t eager to sign papers all day long, especially with such a beautiful, flourishing royal signature. In the end, the King called the Archbishop, who looked very thoughtful and said he would pray about it.
The next day the Archbishop came back, looking even more thoughtful than before, and said that he believed that the King should go and speak to the hermit in the forest, because he would know what the King needed. The King privately thought that this wouldn’t help very much, but he had nothing else to do except sign all the Prime Minister’s pieces of paper (where did that man get them all from?), so, after moaning about it a bit, he said that he would come if the Archbishop would show him the way. The Archbishop wasn’t quite sure he knew the way either, but when his servants asked around, one of the scullery boys, called Tom, knew where the Hermit lived, so, with Tom leading the way they set off into the forest, and, much sooner than either the King or the Archbishop expected, they found the hermit’s cave.
To the King’s surprise, the hermit (who looked exactly like he had imagined a hermit would look) seemed to expect him, and, after formal greetings were exchanged, looked him directly in the eye, and told him that, in order to be cured of his soul’s malaise, he would have to spend his time looking at something that was truly holy. And, having said that, he turned around and walked off into the forest.
The King looked at the Archbishop in utter perplexity. “I know no more than you do, Sire,” the Archbishop said quickly, “but I know that he will not tell you any more than what he has said.”
“Not even if I send my soldiers after him to bring him back?”
“I think you know, Sire, that that would be worse than useless.”
The King bowed his head, acknowledging the truth of this, and they returned home. The next morning (after another sleepless night) the King summoned his court and told them that whoever could find the holy thing that would cure the King’s despondency by next three months time would be rewarded with ten thousand golden coins. This was to be proclaimed throughout the kingdom.
“I thought that a year and a day was the normal time for such quests,” somebody grumbled.
“I can’t bear to wait that long,” replied the King.
For the next three months, people all over the kingdom were busy looking for something holy. Some went seeking the relics of saints, others found expensive bibles or other writings, and some even took the crosses and chalices from churches. And, while all this was going on, Tom the scullery boy, looked around and noticed people. There were elderly people, twisted with arthritis, who couldn’t stop working or they would have nothing to eat. There were little children, who should have been in school, begging on the streets. There were widows and orphans, the sick and the lame and the cold and the exhausted, and Tom began to think how much he could help them if he only had the ten thousand gold pieces that the King had promised. But how could a poor scullery boy find the most holy thing?
So Tom started thinking very hard. He listened to sermons, he tried to remember what he’d heard from the Bible, and finally, he thought to do what no one else in the kingdom had done, and go and ask the Hermit for advice. A great idea began to form in his mind, and he wondered if he’d really be brave enough to do it.
At last the day came. It was a great holiday, and people from all over the kingdom had come to the palace, many of them just to watch what would happen, because this was the most exciting thing that had happened in the kingdom for years. And Tom stood there in the crowd, still hoping he could find courage when the time came.
The trumpets blew, the heralds made their announcements, and, one by one, the people came forward with their offerings of holy things: lords and priests and knights and rich merchants, all in splendid clothes, and with their offerings richly presented. One by one they presented what they had brought to the King, and he would look hard at it, then sadly shake his head. As the day went on he slumped in his throne, and he was obviously finding it hard to keep paying attention. Then the long line came to an end, and the herald asked if there was anyone else who had something to show the King. Tom paused, trying to psych himself up, but then he looked at the King’s face and the King looked so desolate that he felt sorry for him, and, swept by a wave of compassion, he stepped forward boldly.“Yes, I do,” he said.
The people looked surprised, for Tom didn’t have any special clothes; he was just an ordinary, grubby servant boy. But they waited politely, for this was a day when they had come prepared for surprises. “What do you have to show the King?” asked the weary herald.
“Myself,” said Tom, loudly and clearly, and this time you could hear the gasps of amazement, and some people started to laugh. How ridiculous! The herald looked down his long, superior nose, and prepared himself to say something withering about wasting everyone’s time. But he never got the chance, for the King was leaning forward in his seat, fascinated, and it was he who responded, leaving the herald to stand there in slightly huffy silence.
“What can you mean?” asked the King.
“Sire,” said Tom, with a slightly wobbly bow, “until you get to Heaven and see God Himself, and all the angels in their glory, I am the most holy thing you will ever see, because I am a human being. And every human being in this place today is holy too!” There were confused murmurs in the crowd at this, but some of the older priests were starting to nod their heads. They knew what he meant.
“Go on,” said the King, frowning. It was the frown of someone trying to remember something he had heard a long, long time ago.
Tom wasn’t used to long speeches, but he couldn’t stop now, so he did his best to remember the things that the Hermit had told him. “Firstly,” he began, counting the points on his fingers to help him remember, “I am holy because God made me. Second, I am holy because god said to Noah that every human life is precious.. Third, I am holy because the Saviour died for me and bought me back for God. Fourth, I am holy because god sends His spirit to live inside everyone who believes, so I am now a temple. And fifth, because one day, when there is no more dying or crying, I will be perfect and wonderful.”
“And sixth,” added the King, very gently, because you have shown courage and wisdom and faith, and they are holy things too, which come from God.”
And the King stood up from his throne, with an energy he had not shown in years, and there was a light in his eyes and a smile upon his face. And he came down from his throne, and embraced Tom, and led him up to sit with him, where they talked together quietly for several minutes. Then the King turned to the Archbishop and asked that a service of thanksgiving be held in the cathedral that very afternoon. And, while all the important people bustled away, the King sat there quietly, gazing around in wonder.