The king was having an anxiety attack. He was a mess. Out of desperation he summoned his knights.
"Go out into the kingdom," he said, "and find the most contented man. Then bring me his shirt. If I wear his shirt, maybe some contentment will rub off."
The knights rode away. Three days later they returned.
"Did you find the most contented man in my kingdom?" the king asked.
"Yes, sire," the head knight said.
"Did you bring me his shirt?"
The king became furious.
"Why not?" he demanded.
"Because," the knight said, "the most contented man in your kingdom doesn't even own a shirt."
I thought of that little story yesterday while reading the latest Newsweek. The magazine features a story about people paying big bucks on eBay for religious relics a few threads from a Catholic saint's shirt, a snippet of a shroud, even strands of saintly hair and bone fragments.
The buyers hope that maybe a touch of holiness might rub off on them. A little "contentment" might seep into them from a holy shirt. The irony, of course, is like the contented man in the king story, saints who leave such relics had no need for them. The material world meant little to them. They would have gladly given their shirts away.
"Is it really possible to purchase a piece of God's grace and mystery with a credit card?" Newsweek asks at the end of the piece.
The answer is obvious. Like "guilt by association," "grace by association" proves nothing. Objects cannot bestow gifts spiritual or otherwise. Gift-giving is for the living.
What amuses me, however, is that we see Internet "relic shopping" as rather silly but unwittingly indulge in the game ourselves. Maybe we don't buy holy bones, but what of the 60-year-old who thinks buying a new motorcycle will somehow restore the vitality and freedom he felt in his youth? Or the man who thinks dignity and respect will rub off from a Rolex watch?
We all indulge the woman who thinks a youthful hairstyle makes her young, the thug who thinks buying a handgun makes him powerful. Like that foolish king, we think putting on a shirt can change who we are.
I'm not exempt. I've been known to spend more money than is healthy on baseball memorabilia from my youth. I'm looking for that boyhood I left behind.
Still, it's never about the "things" in our lives. What we seek are the emotions those things trigger in us. When I buy an old baseball bat, I don't cherish the bat. I'm cherishing the feelings of surprise and wonder I once felt, the feelings of bliss I felt as a boy before I became too self-conscious, too experienced, too jaded to feel simple joy.
Like the most contented guy in the kingdom, the trick is to realize we can feel all those things content, youthful, spontaneous, strong if we will simply turn to the Creator of such feelings instead of things he created.
That anxious old king didn't need the shirt of a contented man. He needed to tap into the source of all shirts and motorcycles, baseball bats and contented men.He needed to get in touch with the manufacturer.