By Mark Clavier

Once upon a time…

…there was a palace of incomparable splendor, more resplendent than any palace that had been seen before. In the palace lived all the kingdom’s nobility: a prosperous people who enjoyed whatever their hearts desired. They were, by and large, a good people who genuinely wanted what was best for each other. But they were not a wise people.

Their prosperity depended on the palace wizards, who had an almost endless capacity to conjure up anything the people of the palace dreamt up. And since every desire could be fed, the people were free to create and savor new pleasures and to live however they wanted and to do whatever they pleased. They were a free people, and they knew themselves to be free by the fact that they could freely enjoy the wizards’ remarkable magic. Everyone agreed that this was, in fact, a very splendid way to live.

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All the prosperous people of the palace shared three things in common:

First, they always gave heed to the wizards. Such was the charm of the wizards that no one ever tried to resist their magic nor question the source of its power. Why would they? Magic is what made their freedom a reality; without it, the consequence of their freedom and ease wouldn’t be the dependable delight of their appetites, but ceaseless tedium.

Second, the prosperous people of the palace rarely thought about the world outside their beautiful walls. In fact, many believed that the palace and the kingdom were the same thing. And so, the only thing that really mattered was what happened among the people in the palace. Few could remember what their world was like before the palace was built, except that it was backwards, brutal, and unfair. Life in the palace might not be perfect, but it was better than what had come before, and doubtlessly would be improved by the wizards’ magic in the future.

Finally, despite having everything their hearts desired, almost no one was really happy. Life in the palace often seemed to be without meaning. The happiness the magic provided never seemed to bring lasting contentment or satisfaction. One sign of this is that everybody constantly argued. This was because, despite having anything they wanted, most everyone believed there was something slightly off about the palace, even if they couldn’t put their finger on the cause.

“This place is going to the dogs,” shouted the strongest supporters of the wizards, who objected to how some of their neighbors were using the magic.

“We need to be better about sharing the magic equally among all in the palace,” yelled those who thought it wrong that the less prosperous or newcomers in the palace should have less access to the wizards’ magic.

And so, the prosperous people of the palace spent their lives pursuing their desires and arguing with each other about how to make the palace work more efficiently or be more attractive or, actually, be more like how each person thought it should be. Many of these ideas were fair and just in their intention, while others were merely selfish, unrealistic, or mean-spirited. Yet, they all assumed that the wizards’ magic was perpetual and that life in the palace was what really mattered.

The palace leadership worked alongside the wizards to govern the inhabitants fairly and to care for the palace. What they valued above all was that no one should ever question the palace itself or the magic that sustained it. Nor did they ever entertain these questions themselves. “Freedom and Magic” was their slogan, and you could count on it appearing like a mantra in every political speech or proclamation. However much the people disagreed with each other, everyone was united in lustily repeating “Freedom and Magic” with their leaders.

The The palace priests, whose order was older than the wizards and rather archaic, but still charming and useful in its way, dedicated themselves to helping people fulfill their desires and enjoy the magic in ways that benefited or (at least) didn’t harm their neighbors. They interpreted the Sacred Texts to show how the palace had been created as place where they could live freely, safely, and comfortably. They offered advice on how to find meaning within the palace and urged everyone to work together to make the palace better and bigger. But like everyone else, the leaders and the priests always gave heed to the wizards and always argued, often (it seemed) for the sake of arguing.

Outside the palace, things were very different.

The exterior of the palace itself was hideous. Where inside it was shiny and bright, from the outside it appeared as a dark, ominous, and ugly tower that spread like a cancer over the countryside. When viewed from afar it appeared shapeless and no more solid than a dank mist. Its outer precincts were filled with rubbish, pools of poison, and air none could breathe. As the palace expanded, it swallowed all the old towns and villages, the old buildings and churches, and covered all the old fields and forests and rivers.

In what was left of the kingdom outside the palace lived a great multitude of people far more numerous than those who lived inside. They weren’t sophisticated or prosperous like those in the palace. They were too busy to think about their own desires and too burdened by life to think even about themselves. Having never benefited from the wizards’ magic, they seemed brutish, backward, and unsophisticated. Crowded together, they survived on a little food and the meager hope that maybe one day they would be allowed to visit the palace, about which they heard fabulous tales.

These people mined the Life of the Land: the source of the wizard’s magic. It gave the wizards the ability to conjure almost anything, but it left behind corruption and death when taken from the earth. Without the Life of the Land, everything withered and dried up like a leaf in winter. All the good things the prosperous people of the palace enjoyed and took for granted depended on sucking the kingdom dry of Life. And so, the larger the palace became, the more the land decayed.

With each passing year, the palace grew increasingly dark and ugly. People in the palace began to notice that pieces of masonry were flaking off. Cracks started appearing in the outer walls, letting in noxious air. Some even feared that life in the palace might actually be getting worse, that the wizards’ magic was losing potency or becoming harder to produce.

All the while, the arguments grew louder and more violent as the people began to fear for the future. The cacophony of this strife filled all the kingdom with its babbling noise, so that those outside the walls found it harder to hear their own songs and stories. “The babbling tower,” they called the palace, as their former desire to be admitted through its gates turned increasingly into anger and resentment.

Meanwhile, the palace wizards worked harder and harder to distract the prosperous people from looking outside the palace or wondering about the source of their magic. The leadership suggested new ways of sustaining the wizards’ magic, and the priests offered to help people feel less anxious about the cracks in the wall. The people lost confidence in them both and even began to grumble about the wizards, even while they consumed their magic ever more hungrily. Deep down they knew that if the wizards’ spell was broken, the palace would collapse and fall into ruin. So, the prosperous people of the palace gave themselves over to fear and anxiety, sucking Life out of the land with increasing desperation.

Eventually, the Life of the Land was exhausted. The people turned on the powerless wizards because they could no longer cast their spells. They shouted down the leadership for colluding with the wizards, and they spurned the priests for having deluded them. Finally, they turned on each other for wasting the wizards’ magic and leaving nothing but the withered dust of a dead land. The palace crumbled into ruin and all the pleasures of yesteryear were soon forgotten. All that had been achieved within the palace vanished like the morning mist.

As for the great multitude that had never enjoyed life in the palace, their bitterness grew  as strong as their hatred for the fallen people of the palace.

If only the once prosperous people of the palace had remembered that long, long before the first stone of the palace was laid, the Life of the Land had been given as a gift. “Tend and keep this Life wisely,” their first settlers had been told, “and the land and its people will flourish and abound. This Life has been given so that all may be fruitful and share in its abundance. As it is with the land so is it with you: without the Life of the Land, you are but dust and to dust you and all your achievements will return.”

But this promise and warning few had remembered and even fewer cherished. Such were the once prosperous people of the palace that they could never see that in order really to live they had first to love.

For their hearts had withered long before the Life of the Land had.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales, with primary responsibility for pastoral care, community engagement, and formation.

Mark has published four books: On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (Reading Augustine. Bloomsbury), Rescuing the Church from Consumerism (SPCK), Eloquent Wisdom: Rhetoric, Cosmology and Delight in the Theology of Augustine of Hippo (Brepols), and Stewards of God’s Delight: Becoming Priests of the New Creation (Cascade).

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[…] “The Life of the Land: A Cautionary Tale.” Mark Clavier offers a parable that can fruitfully be read alongside Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land.” […]