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Barlaam And Ioasaph by St. John Of Damascus

But meanwhile, the king’s son, of whom our tale began to tell, never departing from the palace prepared for him, attained to the age of manhood. He had pursued all the learning of the Ethiopians and Persians, and was as fair and well favoured in mind as in body, intelligent and prudent, and shining in all excellencies. To his teachers he would propound such questions of natural history that even they marvelled at the boy’s quickness and understanding, while the king was astounded at the charm of his countenance and the disposition of his soul. He charged the attendants of the young prince on no account to make known unto him any of the annoys of life, least of all to tell him that death ensueth on the pleasures of this world. But vain was the hope whereon he stayed, and he was like the archer in the tale that would shoot at the sky. For how could death have remained unknown to any human creature? Nor did it to this boy; for his mind was fertile of wit, and he would reason within himself, why his father had condemned him never to go abroad, and had forbidden access to all. He knew, without hearing it, that this was his father’s express command. Nevertheless he feared to ask him; it was not to be believed that his father intended aught but his good; and again, if it were so by his father’s will, his father would not reveal the true reason, for all his asking. Wherefore he determined to learn the secret from some other source. There was one of his tutors nearer and dearer to him than the rest, whose devotion he had won by handsome gifts. To him he put the question what his father might mean by thus enclosing him within those walls, adding, ‘If thou wilt plainly tell me this, of all thou shalt stand first in my favour, and I will make with thee a covenant of everlasting friendship.’ The tutor, himself a prudent man, knowing how bright and mature was the boy’s wit and that he would not betray him, to his peril, discovered to him the whole matter—the persecution of the Christians and especially of the anchorets decreed by the king, and how they were driven forth and banished from the country round about; also the prophecies of the astrologers at his birth. ‘’Twas in order,’ said he, ‘that thou mightest never hear of their teaching, and choose it before our religion, that the king hath thus devised that none but a small company should dwell with thee, and hath commanded us to acquaint thee with none of the woes of life.’ When the young prince heard this he said never a word more, but the word of salvation took hold of his heart, and the grace of the Comforter began to open wide the eyes of his understanding, leading him by the hand to the true God, as our tale shall go on to tell.

Now the king his father came oftentimes to see his boy, for he loved him passing well. On a day his son said unto him, ‘There is something that I long to learn from thee, my lord the king, by reason of which continual grief and increasing care consumeth my soul.’ His father was grieved at heart at the very word, and said, ‘Tell me, darling child, what is the sadness that constraineth thee, and straightway I will do my diligence to turn it into gladness.’ The boy said, ‘What is the reason of mine imprisonment here? Why hast thou barred me within walls and doors, never going forth and seen of none?’ His father replied, ‘Because I will not, my son, that thou shouldest behold anything to embitter thy heart or mar thy happiness. I intend that thou shalt spend all thy days in luxury unbroken, and in all manner joy and pleasaunce.’ ‘But,’ said the son unto his father, ‘know well, Sir, that thus I live not in joy and pleasaunce, but rather in affliction and great straits, so that my very meat and drink seem distasteful unto me and bitter. I yearn to see all that lieth without these gates. If then thou wouldest not have me live in anguish of mind, bid me go abroad as I desire, and let me rejoice my soul with sights hitherto unseen by mine eyes.’

Grieved was the king to hear these words, but, perceiving that to deny this request would but increase his boy’s pain and grief, he answered, ‘My son, I will grant thee thy heart’s desire.’ And immediately he ordered that choice steeds, and an escort fit for a king, be made ready, and gave him license to go abroad whensoever he would, charging his companions to suffer nothing unpleasant to come in his way, but to show him all that was beautiful and gladsome. He bade them muster in the way troops of folk intuning melodies in every mode, and presenting divers mimic shows, that these might occupy and delight his mind.

So thus it came to pass that the king’s son often went abroad. One day, through the negligence of his attendants, he descried two men, the one maimed, and the other blind. In abhorrence of the sight, he cried to his esquires, ‘Who are these, and what is this distressing spectacle?’ They, unable to conceal what he had with his own eyes seen, answered, ‘These be human sufferings, which spring from corrupt matter, and from a body full of evil humours.’ The young prince asked, ‘Are these the fortune of all men?’ They answered, ‘Not of all, but of those in whom the principle of health is turned away by the badness of the humours.’ Again the youth asked, ‘If then this is wont to happen not to all, but only to some, can they be known on whom this terrible calamity shall fall? or is it undefined and unforeseeable?’ ‘What man,’ said they, ‘can discern the future, and accurately ascertain it? This is beyond human nature, and is reserved for the immortal gods alone.’ The young prince ceased from his questioning, but his heart was grieved at the sight that he had witnessed, and the form of his visage was changed by the strangeness of the matter.

Not many days after, as he was again taking his walks abroad, he happened with an old man, well stricken in years, shrivelled in countenance, feeble-kneed, bent double, grey-haired, toothless, and with broken utterance. The prince was seized with astonishment, and, calling the old man near, desired to know the meaning of this strange sight. His companions answered, ‘This man is now well advanced in years, and his gradual decrease of strength, with increase of weakness, hath brought him to the misery that thou seest.’ ‘And,’ said he, ‘what will be his end?’ They answered, ‘Naught but death will relieve him.’ ‘But,’ said he, ‘is this the appointed doom of all mankind? Or doth it happen only to some?’ They answered, ‘Unless death come before hand to remove him, no dweller on earth, but, as life advanceth, must make trial of this lot.’ Then the young prince asked in how many years this overtook a man, and whether the doom of death was without reprieve, and whether there was no way to escape it, and avoid coming to such misery. They answered him, ‘In eighty or an hundred years men arrive at this old age, and then they die, since there is none other way; for death is a debt due to nature, laid on man from the beginning, and its approach is inexorable.’

When our wise and sagacious young prince saw and heard all this, he sighed from the bottom of his heart. ‘Bitter is life,’ cried he, ‘and fulfilled of all pain and anguish. If this be so, how can a body be careless in the expectation of an unknown death, whose approach (ye say) is as uncertain as it is inexorable?’ So he went away, restlessly turning over all these things in his mind, pondering without end, and ever calling up remembrances of death. Wherefore trouble and despondency were his companions, and his grief knew no ease; for he said to himself, ‘And is it true that death shall one day overtake me? And who is he that shall make mention of me after death, when time delivereth all things to forgetfulness? When dead, shall I dissolve into nothingness? Or is there life beyond, and another world?’ Ever fretting over these and the like considerations, he waxed pale and wasted away, but in the presence of his father, whenever he chanced to meet him, he made as though he were cheerful and without trouble, unwilling that his cares should come to his father’s knowledge. But he longed with an unrestrainable yearning, to meet with the man that might accomplish his heart’s desire, and fill his ears with the sound of good tidings.

Again he enquired of the tutor of whom we have spoken, whether he knew of anybody able to help him towards his desire, and to establish a mind, dazed and shuddering at its cogitations, and unable to throw off its burden. He, recollecting their former communications, said, ‘I have told thee already how thy father hath dealt with the wise men and anchorets who spend their lives in such philosophies. Some hath he slain, and others he hath wrathfully persecuted, and I wot not whether any of this sort be in this country side.’ Thereat the prince was overwhelmed with woe, and grievously wounded in spirit. He was like unto a man that hath lost a great treasure, whose whole heart is occupied in seeking after it. Thenceforth he lived in perpetual conflict and distress of mind, and all the pleasures and delights of this world were in his eyes an abomination and a curse. While the youth was in this way, and his soul was crying out to discover that which is good, the eye that beholdeth all things looked upon him, and he that willeth that ‘all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth,’ passed him not by, but showed this man also the tender love that he hath toward mankind, and made known unto him the path whereon he needs must go. Befel it thus.

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