It was a small temple of exquisite proportions, mellowed by long years of weathering, a fitting crown for the promontory overlooking the blue Ægean. To whatever god it was first dedicated, it now seemed the shrine of a whole pantheon: doves, sacred to Aphrodite as also to Zeus, circled and wheeled with flashing wings, or filled the court-yard with their music; peacocks, regal as Hera, spread their fans, inviting the sun to add a greater brilliance to their finery; less showy, but invested with equal dignity, was the small brown owl, Athena's own, perched high on the lintel. Flowers gave of their honeyed fragrance and enticed a myriad bees, whose steady hum added to the drowsiness of the long summer days; while the laurel, dear to Phoebos, lined the court-yard.
Time was when the altar-fire had been tended by a priest, fully conscious of the wealth within his temple; now the wealth was less apparent, and the fire was tended night and day by villagers from the valley. Long, long ago, or so the legend ran, a stranger had climbed the promontory, and resting there in contemplation of the sea and sky, had fallen asleep. Perhaps he dreamed, but one thing surely stayed with him when he awoke — the memory of a voice saying: "Serve us and we will reward thee."
And so the temple came into being. No expense was spared in its building, for in his heart the stranger visioned the day when this temple should become a place of pilgrimage: rich tribute should be offered from all corners of the Mediterranean world and mayhap even the gods would pass that way and give their blessing.
At last the temple was completed, and he whose dream-child it was became the guardian of its sacred fire. As the days and weeks ran into months and years, tokens from far and wide were laid before its altar; and yet, had the gods blessed it? The guardian of the temple looked around him and was dissatisfied. What could he do to make the country-people more conscious of the shrine, more reverent of the gods to whom this gracious edifice was dedicated? Those who came from afar bearing gifts too often wore the badge of slavish 'fashion', while those who dwelt in the country round-about either showed a contempt by their absence or gave grudgingly, and ever more sparingly. It was not the lack of tribute in itself the guardian mourned: it was what its absence signified — he had failed the gods!
Long and earnestly he pondered the question, but could not find the answer. Then one day the thought came to him that he knew little of the people in the valley. Disguising himself as a lonely traveler, he made his way to the lowland and through the village. Poverty greeted him on every side, though here was soil that should have been rich in grain, and towards the hills that hemmed the valley was land meant for grazing. At one poor hut he stopped and asked to quench his thirst.
"We have naught of wine nor even milk," the housewife stammered in apology, "but since no weary soul has left my house without refreshment, take you this barley cake and wash it down with water from the spring near by."
"Is there some blight upon the land?" the stranger asked.
"Blight? Aye, of the spirit," his hostess answered. "See yon temple?" she asked, pointing to the promontory. " 'T is no holy place, that, but a soulless shrine, where selfishness and greed are masked as piety and devotion to the gods! 'Give, give, give,' the temple servants say, and he who built the shrine and guards its fire is worst of all, and thinks he serves the gods by making beggars of us here."
"But perhaps those who care for the temple do not know the misery they have caused. Surely much of the tribute — indeed the greater part of the temple's wealth — comes from distant lands, for it is known afar, and I myself have heard it spoken of, and many praise its beauty."
"Beauty of material, beauty of form — yes," the woman said scornfully, "but is that all the gods seek for in their shrines? Surely no more so than in their devotees! And look, you, stranger, if he who built the temple knows nothing of this wasted land, then is he failing in his duty to the gods he thinks to serve. Shall the guardian of the temple be blind to the needs of those around him? Shall he point the way to the gods when he knows it not himself and has never learned to sense the heart-beat of his fellowmen! Forgive me, friend, I am shamed at my lack of hospitality and courtesy. But go you, seek out the shrine yourself, and see if you can find a grain of incense that will rise one tenth as high as Mount Olympus."
The traveler stood with bowed head. His heart was heavy, his mind bewildered by a host of warring thoughts. He turned to thank his hostess but she had vanished, nor had he heard her leave. Slowly he went from the hut and took his way back to the promontory.
For a while he remained gazing at the blue sea below him. He could not bear to look at the temple lest the desecration he had unwittingly committed take form and crush him. But he was powerless to cast the memory of it from his mind. Once more he heard the voice saying "Serve us and we will reward thee"; once more he lived through the days when the temple was being built and remembered the hope that had filled his heart. Only now it seemed a poor thing and unworthy because he saw ambition and pride going hand in hand with hope. He saw the temple completed and himself installed as guardian. — — —
The altar fire! He had forgotten it — then he remembered that he had left an attendant to guard it in his absence. Quickly he made his way to the temple and to the altar. There was no sign of the attendant. The flame had died down, the coals were graying. Desperately he blew upon them as if to infuse his own life into them, and little by little a warmer glow appeared. He added fuel and a tiny flame leapt up. To the guardian of the temple it was a symbol of his soul and a promise of its resurrection. Through the long hours of the night he stood watch. They were hours of deep inner suffering, but when morning came he had found peace.
He called the temple attendants, but the one who had failed with him did not answer. To the other he said: "I must leave the temple in your care. I know not how long I shall be gone, but someone will come to help you, someone you can trust. If the country-folk come to you for fruit and grain give it to them. They need food, and when the time for planting comes they must have seed."
As before, he clothed himself in the garments of a traveler and with sturdy staff set out for the valley. For days he made his home among the people, learning more of their way of life, their needs, their hopes; and here he sensed a nearness to the gods, a genuine devotion that made him wonder more and more that he had dared to think the temple — and himself — worthy of their tribute. Quietly he let it be known that grain for food and planting would be given for the asking. Because he knew their need he thought they would be eager, but his words received scant recognition. The villagers were proud: they would not beg, nor would they accept from the temple guardian even that which was rightfully theirs.
"Do but listen to me," he urged. "I tell you he who was guardian of the temple is there no longer. In his stead is a simple youth who needs your friendship and your help. Share with him the duties of the temple, make it a shrine worthy of the gods, and in return accept the grain he will give to you. Look upon your valley! Will you let it go another season without replanting?
"I cannot stay among you, but I shall come again, and if all goes well I shall bring you flocks for your pastures."
More than a twelvemonth passed. The traveler went from countryside to countryside, seeking always a closer understanding of his fellowmen, earnestly searching his own heart that he might serve the gods in everything he did. Here and there he found work to do for which he received in payment a few sheep or goats, and when he reached the valley once more he came as a shepherd, and found the fields golden with grain ready for the harvest.
As he passed through the village he apportioned his flock. More than one of those he visited asked him to stay the night, but he only said he must be on his way. Wherever he stopped he heard some word of the temple. It seemed that everyone shared in its care, and loved it. The bond between the temple and the countryside was so strong that every home, no matter how simple, was an extension of the shrine, and every hearthstone a sacred altar.
Climbing the path that led up to the temple the feeling of a 'presence' grew stronger and stronger, and as he stood reverently before the altar he heard the voice. But where before it had been a challenge and even a chastisement, now it carried the blessing of fulfilment:
"Those who serve us know us, for they are beloved of the gods."
Back Issues Menu