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Tomb of the Saints

Carol Ring

Stories about holy places focus frequently on external aspects, like stories that describe how a Holy Man punishes people who despised his grave. The story that I bring here touches a more covert and delicate essence of holy places.

Indeed, we do not speak here about a real folktale, a story that had passed from one generation to another, but about a literary story, but still I believe that it fits the site The story was written by Carol Ring.

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There is a special quality of light in the Middle East, a light so bright it awakens people to the presence of the spirit. I have heard it said that this is why it is the womb of many religions. But armies follow religion like night follows day, and the land has become as drenched with blood as it is with light. Perhaps it is the attraction of opposites.

One thing is certain: this land has given birth to quite a few saintly people, and an unusual number of sacred tombs dot the countryside. It is not always known who is buried where, with armies continually sweeping through and wiping out the evidence especially as saintly people tend to be simple, and moreover poor, and not famous until generations later. But oral tradition endures. And the tombs endure as well, marked by ancient trees as sacred places that even armies respect. So while the exact identity of the dust that lies under the tomb may be in question, there is no doubt that the place itself is sacred. Perhaps these places were always sacred, long before anyone was buried there.

Abu Casem, an elderly Bedouin who during his long life saw three different religions rule the land, once confided to me that each religion in turn claims the tombs for their own holy ones. Thus the same tomb may actually shelter the remains of any one of three different saints. Or perhaps the tomb belongs to all three at once, and the spirits of the three saints sit down together in the late afternoon, after the visitors leave, to enjoy the shade of the sacred tree that spreads above them. Surely they would like each others company, as they compare their teachings and the foibles of the people whom they tried to elevate. It is even more likely that they compare their olive crops and the price of sheep. I can just see them sitting there peacefully, three old men who lived simple lives and grew wise, each in his time.

It happened one day that the three saints were sitting together when who should pass by but the devil himself. (Although the religions may change, the devil manages to remain true to himself, and to himself only). The three saints, each of whom had vanquished the evil spirit in his own life, were somewhat taken aback to see him still well and thriving. But they quickly regained enough presence of mind to invite him to sit down with them, hospitality always having been a major characteristic of saints (especially in the Middle East).

Boastful as ever, the devil turned the conversation towards his newest feats of war and destruction. And indeed these were violent times. This of course had always been the superficial appearance of life in this area; in fact, each of the saints could remember the dark threat of doom hovering in the air during his own lifetime. But this time the devil seemed to have a winning point: he had managed to arrange that the very people who were speaking in the name of religion were his best agents of destruction. And they were all speaking at once, setting their followers at each others throats. The saints had to admit that it looked bad.

For the rest of the day, the saintly old men gave all their thought to how they could brighten the outlook. They had no pretensions of saving humanity or preventing wars; they were wise enough, and had been around long enough to know that peace would follow war, and war would follow peace. Besides, most people nowadays put their faith in worldly leaders and in external events, areas where the saints had little influence. The peace they could bring was of a different nature, more like a light to dispel the inner darkness, no matter what was raging outside.

It was quite clear that nothing could be done on a grand scale. That was not the way they worked, and anyway, they could not go far, for their spirits belonged to their tomb. They would have to do something local.

They considered their options. They had always tried to have some influence on the visitors to their tomb by creating an atmosphere of quiet sacredness. Sometimes they even granted a miracle to those sincerely in need of a sign. But most visitors flitted in and out like random associations, with not a moments silence to receive the grace the saints could bestow. Now they contemplated putting their strength together to create a big miracle, but realized it would only provoke a new stream of greedy petitioners. And they couldnt bare the thought of any more noise, even for a good cause. No, they would have to work in a more subtle way.

That night, they invited the devil back to dinner and they could get quite a feast together with the remains that picnickers left strewn around the tomb. The devil needed no luring; in fact, now that he had discovered the three old saints, he intended to stop by and gloat as often as possible. He was just sharpening his tongue to tell them a particularly atrocious piece of news when the three men interrupted him with a surprising offer: Would you like to gamble?"

He of course had invented gambling, although he considered it one of his minor achievements, and was proud pride being one of his major achievements that they would like to play his game. What pleased him most was that he was sure to win, as none of them had too much practice at it, and were probably no good at all at cheating. He was slightly bothered by the fact that he seemed to remember that each of them had already vanquished him once, but this just heightened the odds and made the proposition all the more attractive.

And this was the gamble: that he could not ask them a question they could not answer, nor answer the question they ask him. If he won, they would abandon their tomb. If he lost, he would have to withdraw his influence from that area. (This may seem a trifling punishment, but the saints knew that the Almighty would never allow more interference than that in the balance of power on earth; in fact, He considered the devil rather useful).

Typically naive, thought the devil, and agreed, impatient to be rid of them and inherit the tomb and its visitors for himself. But the saints were not as naive as he thought; in fact they had a great advantage. They knew the devil quite well for they had studied all his weaknesses in their own selves and they knew exactly what he could and could not do. And the one thing the devil could never do was to ask a real question.

Indeed, try as he might, the closest thing to a question the devil could come up with was doubt. And he was so completely self-centered that anything he could think of had himself for an easy answer. He tried so hard that he nearly suffocated in the airless depths of his dark mind. Finally realizing he was much better at answers than at questions, he demanded to hear their question.

What makes all things visible, yet is itself invisible; is infinite, yet can squeeze through the tiniest crack; and one small drop of it brightens the whole world?

Now if there was one thing that the devil hated more than a question, it was a paradox. There was no way he could fit two opposites in his mind at the same time. He was never one for seeing the whole picture, and he found it much more enjoyable to stick firmly to one side of an issue (the negative side). Suddenly remembering he had some very pressing business down below, he was gone.

When the smoke cleared, the three saints quietly sat back to enjoy the sunrise. Their radiant smiles merged with the bright light of dawn and filled the land with a vibrant glow. And since that day, the tomb of the saints has been blessed with a very special quality of light, a light that squeezes through the tiniest cracks in the surrounding gloom and makes visible all that is in darkness. It is just one small drop of light in a very small place, but it can brighten the whole world.