The village of Imbrick was perched far on the northern shore. The forest to the south of the village was so thick that from above it looked as though the village was being engulfed and eaten by a giant dark green slug. The forest was infested with packs of wolves and so the locals rarely ventured down the road through the forest, and instead they traded with the odd fishing boat that passed by. The villagers were often out of touch with developments in the towns and cities far to the south and so it caused great excitement when each year a priest would visit the village to bless and preach to the villagers and give them news of the events affecting the rest of the nation.
One evening a strange man cloaked in the tattered robes of a cleric stumbled into the village. His flesh had been scratched and ripped so the villagers took him in and tended to his wounds. The strange man pretended to be asleep while the villagers around him discussed who he could be. The blacksmith argued that because of his robes he must be the priest who came to visit them each year. The milk maid pointed to the torn garments and proclaimed that they were too small to be a man’s. The village was divided and did not know which to believe. The strange man hearing this awoke the next day and introduced himself to the villagers as the replacement priest sent to visit them each year about this time. He said that he had been attacked by a wolf and most of his robes torn away from him.
The villagers believed him. They prepared a house just for the stranger and made it as comfortable as they could with feathered pillows and a fresh hay mattress. The tailor made him some fine new robes in the priestly fashion while fresh fruits, bread, and meat were brought to the stranger for him to feast on, which he consumed greedily for he was a big man.
A young man who was feeling troubled came to seek the priest’s advice. During the previous winter he had dropped a wagon wheel on his brother’s hand and broken his thumb. He was still tormented with the guilt even though his brother’s thumb had since healed properly. The stranger counselled the youth and told him he should have to live with the guilt for the rest of his life, for he was a weak and careless fool for dropping the wheel. He then added that fools such as he could never be forgiven unless he should make a sacrifice to the gods.
“What sacrifice must I make?” cried the aggrieved young man.
The stranger looked at him and said, “Ten gold coins should do it. Bring them to me and I shall take them to the temple in the town on your behalf so that you may be forgiven.”
The young man despaired for he had only five gold coins. The stranger told him bad luck, it was not enough and for him. “Go away fool and don’t come back to me until you have enough gold.”
The young man fled back home and stole the money from his father and brought it back to the priest’s house. The stranger was happy to receive the gold coins and put his hand over the young man’s head and proclaimed him to be forgiven and the young man left feeling greatly relieved.
Next a young woman who was pregnant for the first time, and was feeling nervous about it, sought to receive blessings from the priest. The stranger beckoned her into the house and shut the door telling her that the blessing would require her to remove her clothes. The naïve young woman obeyed and the stranger touched her all over and declared her to be blessed. The young woman put her clothes on and believing herself to have been blessed she left in a happy mood.
Then on the sacred day of the week, the entire village gathered at the odeon to listen to the priest preach to them. The stranger got up and spoke to the villagers and told them that although life was the hard the greatest problem was the human weakness of feelings. He told them that only weakling little boys cried and that any man who does is pathetic. He urged the people to damn up their feelings and keep them to themselves because it shows weakness and being inconsiderate to others. He emphasised that women who complain should be struck until they learn to be silent and to not upset other people. He said that the key to happiness was not saying anything to anyone that might upset them but to be nice by telling people what they most wanted to hear. Finally that if a person did anything wrong, the key to righting all wrongs was punishment, and if punishment didn’t work that was only because one wasn’t using enough.
Some of the villagers were concerned about this message, while others were happy to take the authority of the priestly robes the stranger wore as proof that he spoke wisdom to them. When one of the older women recalled the homilies of previous clerics decided to speak up about it an old man who did not like this particular woman cried out, “stop complaining and picking on him, you’re annoying everyone here with your bigotry.”
The stranger pointed to the two people and for a moment the villagers were expecting the priest to urge them to reconcile, but instead the priest urged the old man to strike the complaining woman. The old man hesitated at first, but conceding that this was a priest giving him this instruction it must be the right thing to do. He got up and struck the woman. She cried out in dismay and so the stranger urged him to strike her again, and again.
“Do this to anyone who tries to upset or annoy you with their complaining.”
Chaos erupted in the village. When a little boy started crying the little girls would mock and hit him. When fisherman complained about his nets not being fixed properly rocks were thrown at him for making trouble. When a father complained that five of his gold coins were missing his sons told him to shut up and accept that whoever took those coins needed them more than he did. All the while the stranger in the priest’s robes moved freely about the village stealing and touching people rudely.
In a matter of days everyone in the village regarded each other in a spirit of fear and suspicion. There were many arguments but no one could talk them out before a fresh brawl erupted. Joyful conversation had entirely disappeared and the people talked only in fearful whispers to each other when they did speak. Even the May festival was cancelled due to too much complaining and a street brawl that resulted when trying to resolve it. Everyone was hurting and miserable, but they dare not show it in case they were mocked for showing the pain or complaining about it. The only person who was happy was the man dressed in the priest’s robes.
The woodcutter, whose pregnant wife had gone to the priest’s house to be blessed, was angry and suspicious about what his wife had told him. He spoke to the man who had seen the stranger first, and he told him how his sins had been cleaned away by handing over ten gold coins to the stranger. He then sought out the milk maid who had been suspicious about the stranger and asked her to explain why. She pulled out the priestly robes that the man had arrived in the village wearing. She then arranged the torn pieces of clothing together how they originally were and pointed out that these were the robes of a priestess instead. Realising what this meant the woodcutter took his axe and bravely ventured out into the woods alone.
He searched all day and in the evening he found a thin dirty woman cooking a mushroom stew by a small campfire outside a cave. The woman looked wild as a beast for she had no clothes except for mud and bark. The woodcutter approached her and she withdrew into a small cave.
“Fear not dirty woman, I have come looking for a priestess who may have come this way looking for the village of Imbrick.”
“I am she!” cried the dirty woman as she came from the cave.
The man looked at her and could not believe that she was a wise and noble teacher of virtue.
“If you are a priestess then you must prove it too me.”
“That is wise to ask,” said the woman, “How would you normally tell if a person were a cleric?”
“I would tell by their robes and how clean they kept their body and belongings.”
“Suppose I am a priestess, but a highwayman robbed me of everything I have including my clothes? Leaving me for dead in the forest and forcing me to scavenge to survive alone for weeks huddling in this cave here?”
“Then you would no longer look like a priestess, but like a bandit.”
“I may look like bandit, but would I not still be a priestess?”
“That is so.”
“What about a highwayman who wears the robes of a priest and carries a priest’s belongings?”
“Well they would look like a priest and be treated like one.”
“They may look like a priest, but would they be a priest?”
“They would not.”
“Then if one cannot tell from looks alone whether a person is a priest or not, how can you be sure if I or this stranger is the priest your village was expecting?”
The woodcutter thought about it, “The priest would give wise counsel and the highwayman would give bad counsel; and that is how one could tell them apart from each other.”
“I agree, test me to see if I give good council,” said the dirty woman.
“If a man felt guilty for breaking his brother’s thumb, even though he had apologised to his brother, and the thumb had healed well, what should that man do?”
“That man should accept that as men we are all flawed and it’s cruel of him to expect perfect behaviour from himself, an imperfect creature. He acknowledged his wrong doing, and the thumb was restored, instead he should be grateful and take better care next time.”
“Should he pay any money to the gods to be forgiven?”
“If forgiveness can be bought so easily with gold, then rich people could commit any crimes they wished and the poor would be enslaved through their guilt.”
The woodcutter was impressed with this answer and greeted the dirty woman as a priestess. He quickly took the woman to the milk maid’s hut and presented her to her. The wood cutter asked the milk maid to mend the priestess’ robes for her so that she could wear them and show the village that she is the real priestess sent to them. The milk maid was not satisfied with this.
“This dirty hag could not possibly be a priestess as she is not dressed as one and is covered in mud.”
“Then test her, seek out her advice and see if she answers you wisely, then you will know if she is a hag or a priestess.”
The milk maid agreed and asked her what a blessing for a pregnant woman should look like, as the woodcutter’s wife was her sister and she was angry about what had happened to her too.
“There is no blessing for pregnancy but comfort, companionship, and reassurance from old mothers.”
“So she does not need to take her clothes off to be blessed?”
“A physician may do so to check that her and her baby’s health is good, but no priest needs to do this.”
The milk maid nodded and agreed that his all made good sense. She set about mending the robes and the woman washed herself clean. The following morning the woodcutter presented the woman now dressed in the robes of priestess and declared her to be the real cleric and the stranger to be a pretender. The villagers were angry, unwilling to admit they were duped by a common highwaymen and so the whole village gathered at the odeon before the strange woman and the strange man.
The woodcutter spoke to the crowd, “We have all heard the counsel of this stranger, let us now hear a homily from this strange woman and see if we can tell which one is the cleric and which is the imposter.”
The strange woman got up and spoke about the purity of the human heart. She said that every feeling mattered because it told us something important about who we are and what we want. She talked about acceptance of one’s feelings, acceptance of the feelings of others, and learning to be patient through understanding how one’s beliefs affected how we felt. She described many famous people and how being in touch with their feelings had brought them closer to God and virtue. She said all this in a calm and dignified manner. The villagers looked at each other and realised how they had been so cruel and unkind to each other, and they realised how they had seen a man dressed as a priest and assumed that he was a priest. They then saw how their belief in him being a priest had led them to confidently commit sins against each other.
The stranger tried to flee but the villagers caught him and tied him up. They returned the coins to the young man, who returned the stolen coins to his father and apologised for his sin. The woodcutter beat and flogged the man for violating his wife. Finally the whole village enslaved the man making him eat and work like a horse for a full year as penance for his crime of impersonation. The priestess preached to him each day while he was in chains so that when the time came for him to be released he was truly repentant for his crimes.
The priestess spoke to the villagers one last time before leaving Imbrick, “See what happens when the words of a fool are elevated to gospel? See how easily vice spreads like an illness throughout the entire village? A builder is not qualified for having tools, but for having skills, and a priest is not qualified for having robes, but for having wisdom. While it is wise to take advice from someone wiser than yourself, each person must be wise in choosing the one they choose to follow.”