The Story of the Thief and the Mask
or The Spiritual Practice of Fake It Till You Make It
A sermon by David Freiman
July 31, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Church of Queens
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
– Tao Te Ching, c. 6th century BCE
“The proper relationship to all things is blessing.”
– Swami Muktananda, 1908-1982
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle, 384 BC–322 BCE
“If you treat an individual as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749–1832
“The fire of disciplined practice destroys impurities and leads to mastery of the body and senses.”
– Patanjali, c. 5th century BCE
“Lift one flower and the garland comes with it.”
Story of the Thief and the Mask
Traditional, as retold by David Freiman
Copyright © 2011 David Freiman
In old China the Emperor decided that it was time for his daughter the princess to be married and he set out to choose her husband.
“But, Father,” said the Princess, “I can not just marry anyone you choose. I must marry the most generous, noble and good man in the empire. I believe that if I look at a man’s face, I can tell if he is all of these things.”
The Emperor announced, “I will then send word to every corner of the empire that there will be a party in the palace where every eligible man may seek your hand.”
“Thank you, father. I am certain I will be able to know my husband when I see him.”
Well, the news went out, and practically every man, young or old, handsome or plain, single or married, considered himself a likely suitor.
Now, living in the empire at that time, was a master thief. He was a particularly evil, despicable, sneaky, clever, dishonest man and he had a face that matched, twisted and mean. He was well known and despised throughout the land. He was so infamous that he was recognized everywhere he went. It had started to affect his business. It was getting so bad for him that he was thinking the most awful thoughts possible for him, he was thinking that he might actually have to get a job!
When the thief heard about the party he decided it may be an opportunity to get into the palace. “I will slip in with the other suitors,” thought the thief, “In the chaos I will steal something precious and slip out in the crowd unnoticed.”
So he would not be recognized he went to the best mask maker in the land. The mask maker was a brilliant craftsman who created a mask with a face so noble, honest and gentle, and so lifelike, that no one would suspect the evil face beneath.
On the day of the party the thief bathed in his golden tub, which, of course, he had stolen. He washed himself with the fragrant soaps and expensive perfumes that he had also stolen. He dressed in his finest stolen robes and wore his finest stolen sandals. He put on his new mask and he went to the palace.
At the festival the princess, as had been planned, generously met every man who attended, gazed at each face and found fault with each one.
When the thief arrived he was astonished by all the wonderful, beautiful things surrounding him. There were golden lamps and silver platters and jade and ivory statues and intricately carved wooden boxes.The thief, tried not to be obvious, but he could not help himself and he stared in amazement. He could not decide what it was that he should steal. The mask hid his scheming face and his avarice.
The minute that the princess saw the thief, she fell in love with him. She mistook the sideward glances of the mask for bowing and deference to her. His face was the most kind and gentle and loving and generous and honest face she had ever seen.
She beckoned him forward and said, “You came.” The thief could not believe it and froze. Not knowing what to do, he slowly turned his head to be sure she was addressing him. The princess found this so humble and charming. She said, “I was sure you would be here.”
The thief was so afraid that he it was all he could do to hide his shaking. He was in a panic. The princess read his slow movements as dignified grace. The thief had never expected to speak to the princess. His stomach was in his throat. He disguised his voice and said, “Your highness, I do not know what to say.”
“You have the most handsome, gentle, kind, generous and honest face I have ever seen.” she said. The thief’s face was doing all kinds of things behind the mask, but his silence impressed the princess as refinement.
“Father,” said the princess to the Emperor, “I have found the man I wish to marry.”
“Daughter,” the Emperor replied, “I will clear the palace and we will begin the wedding preparations immediately.” The thief was completely surprised. He did not know what to do. The mask hid his creased brow and the cold sweat trickling down his face.
Completely flustered, he said, “Your Highness, I never considered the possibility that a princess would ever actually want to marry me. I am most unworthy of your affection.” The princess was impressed with his modesty. The thief’s mind was spinning. Finally, he said, “Your Highness, obviously this is an important decision and that it needs careful consideration. You will understand that I need time to wrap up my affairs before I can move into the palace.”
The thief was still searching for the exits and had given up all hope of stealing something now. “I promise I will return in one year with my answer.”
“Oh,” said the princess, “I can see that you are an honest, humble, and responsible man.” The thief self-consciously lowered his face which the princess took to be the most noble gesture she had seen.
The Emperor said, “It is settled then,” and had his guards clear the palace.
When the thief reached the entrance, a cheer went up in the crowd. The people lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him about the city. It wasn’t until the thief got home that he realized that he hadn’t even stolen anything!
The next morning, the thief realized that all eyes were on him and he would have to wear his disguise until people lost interest in him. As long as he was in disguise and in the public eye, the thief could not steal.
People treated him differently. They gave him their full attention and were interested in hearing his opinion. They were polite and kind and brought him food and little gifts. They invited him to tea and to dinner. They invited him to concerts and theater. He had never experienced this before growing up in the mean streets.
He learned that these people gave to philanthropy for the poor and contributed to the arts. He saw them volunteer their time on behalf of those less fortunate and for causes.
The thief began to act in a way that was gentle and kind and honest. He tentatively began to donate to charity and volunteer his time and he discovered he felt good helping others, so he increased his efforts and began to sell the precious items he stole in order to give the money to those who needed it. In time, his stash was completely cleaned out.
The thief gradually discovered that he felt more content and harmonious than ever before.
When the year had passed the thief returned, as he had promised, to the Emperor’s palace. “It is a shame,” he said to himself. “I am so grateful for the good life I have enjoyed this past year. I have no choice but to tell the Princess the truth and fall on her mercy.”
The thief went before the princess, bowed his head, knelt down and softly explained the whole story to her: “I am nothing but a common, ugly thief and I was not lying a year ago when I said I was truly unworthy of you.” The thief told the Princess how a master craftsman had made a wonderful mask to disguise him. The thief looked up with tears in his eyes, and asked the princess to forgive him for his cruel deceit. “Please spare my poor, miserable soul.”
The Princess, being a kind and generous Princess, said, “I am such a fool. I thought that I could tell what kind of person you were from your face. I forgive you and your life will be spared. This must have been a terrible year for you. It is I who should apologize to you. But first, will you remove your mask so I may see how your true face?”
The thief, fearfully, took off the mask. The Princess gasped. Then she said, “But why would you have a mask made to look exactly like your own face?” she demanded. The thief was confused once more and he asked to look into a mirror. Surely enough, the face that stared back was exactly the same as the mask.
Well, you probably guessed, The thief and the princess got married. They hung that mask in a place of honor in the great hall and they had wonderful, gentle, kind, generous and honest children.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (circa 200 A.D.)
Translation by American yogi Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of:
- 1. friendliness towards those who are happy,
- 2. compassion for those who are suffering,
- 3. goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and
- 4. indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.
Ann Beirne is a lifelong practicing Catholic and a member of St. Augustine’s Church in Park Slope, where she is also the leader of song. She has been a Unitarian Universalist for the past two years and is a member of All Souls Church in Manhattan. Ann is a behavior analyst and special education teacher with fifteen years experience of working with children with autism spectrum disorders. She is currently working as a consultant to schools designing classroom programming and training teachers to work with children with autism. She is clinical director of the Global Autism Project and has twice delivered training in Accra, Ghana. Ann is a graduate of Binghamton University and Columbia Teachers College. She is the mother of two and stepmother of two with her husband David Freiman.
David Freiman is a certified yoga teacher who specializes in doing yoga with children with autism spectrum disorders. As a yoga therapy practitioner he works privately with stressed out adults. A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music he has directed plays and musicals and conducted opera, which is how he met his wife Ann Beirne, a soprano. David also had a fourteen year career as a certified software trainer and computer consultant working with Fortune 100 clients. A native New Yorker, David became a Unitarian Universalist in college. He has been a member of All Souls Church in New York since 1998, where he directed the children’s choir for eight years. For the past four years he has taught fourth graders the UU principles and the Our Whole Lives lifespan human sexuality curriculum. In addition to his children with Ann, David has two children from a previous marriage, a daughter who as a high school senior was co-recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Youth Activist Award, and a son who this year completed Coming of Age. Ann and David were married five years ago by Rev. Cheryl M. Walker in a ceremony in Northampton, Massachusetts as protest to win marriage equality in New York State.
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