Theodore Ludwig Clemens

The Wise Man and the Wishing Bowl

Once upon a time, in sixteenth-century Jerusalem, there was a wise man. He was neither Jewish nor Palestinian, a Muslim nor a Catholic nor religious at all. He was but a man of the Earth, and perhaps this is what made him wise. And this wise man, who lived in sixteenth-century Jerusalem, otherwise scant of possessions, carried naught but a wishing bowl.

Equipped with his wishing bowl, as well as tattered robes the color of rust and sandals poorly threaded together, the wise man journeyed throughout the holy city of Jerusalem, which was known biblically as Ariel or Zion, and to the Arabs as Al-Quds, and Muslims, specifically, as Bayt al-Maqdis. Indeed, the wise man and his wishing bowl did not contain their nomadic wanderings to this ancient and holy city, but also traveled throughout the whole of the region, which one day would take the misnomer of the Middle East.

Indeed, this wise man who had no name had wandered from Istanbul to Riyadh, from the gulfs of modern-day Kuwait and Oman and Qatar to the deserts of Egypt, from Beirut to Amman, and finally, after a great deal of time in the Yemeni city of Mocha, the wise man settled in Jerusalem, in the sixteenth-century. And, there, in the year 1579, is where our story begins; for it was there, among all the places he had seen, that the wise man can be said to have become truly wise.

The year 1579 was a year of much importance around the world. Sir Francis Drake had landed in California and claimed it on behalf of England (though one can only surmise how the indigenous people felt about this). The Spanish were working for control of the Netherlands. The Irish, under the leadership of the well-named James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, were attempting to dismantle the yoke of Elizabethan rule. And, at this time, Jerusalem stood as a place of contentious coexistence, not so unlike its present state.

After passing through the hands of various Muslim empires, before being decimated by Christian conquerors, and being returned again to Muslim control, the city was taken and held by the Ottomans. Thus, by the year 1579, and the story of the wise man and the wishing bowl, Jerusalem was firmly under Ottoman control. Under the Ottomans, and within the city, there lived a great number of people: Arabs and Jews, Greeks and Georgians, Copts and Assyrians, Serbs and Turks, and many others, even including a few French. There were Jews of all backgrounds: Hassidic and lay, Ashkenazi and Sephardic and Mizrahi, Berbers and Romaniote and Bukharan, and on and on. There were Muslims of all sorts: Those who adhered to Sufism and those who chose Shiite, others Sunni, and all scattered from their different homelands in their different regions. There were Christians of every denomination: Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Franciscan.

Yet to say all of these people existed peacefully was no certain truth though, at times, their lives came together, the exemplar of friendliness and compassion, in spite of their pseudo-differences. Most often this occurred after this or that person had been to see the wise man, the wise man who was unlike any of them, who belonged to no religion and to no ethnicity, the wise man who carried only his wishing bowl and the tattered robes and his poorly thread sandals.

It was him, this wise man, who most of all brought the people together.

Of course, none of this could have happened without the wishing bowl.

How he came into possession of the wishing bowl is a story within itself. The wise man, still in Mocha, and at this point not a wise man at all but a simple nomad, had been wandering for forty days and forty nights. In these nearly six weeks of errant solitude, the simple nomad had seen endless stretches of sand, an earth desiccated and shriveled and thirsty, a lonely cactus and families of locusts; then he saw all of this awaken, come to life and bloom, so that what was once sand now was grass and water and nature of all sorts; and here, among the nature, he saw mosques colored beautifully and churches erected in white, buildings and huts and humans like himself trading and bartering, eating and drinking, living. He had been so consumed by heat he thought he would melt, yet so cold he thought himself like to freeze, to die where he was, an icy sculpture wrought for the world to observe. He had been on the brink of insanity, yet on the cusp of enlightenment.

And, in this way, having seen and not seen, having felt and not felt, having, like water, passed through this state and that state and onto the next, while all the time remaining, at its core, water, the simple nomad-who-was-to-become-wise entered the Yemeni city of Mocha. And, entering the Yemeni city of Mocha, he came to a gathering of people the likes of which he had never seen. It was a festival of sorts, all spread out under a great tent the color of pistachios. A scrawny, almost skeletal man with skin the color of soaked wood served as cynosure. He had on orange robes with red trim, a teal turban impressively tied up, and in his hands was a bowl. The bowl (which in fact was the wishing bowl) colored white at the top and a purplish-blue at the bottom, had a diameter of three feet, two handles decorated with gemstones, and was inlaid with rubies and sapphires and emeralds, with a base like that of candelabra. Such was the wishing bowl as the simple nomad first saw it.

“What is this marvelous thing you hold?” the simple nomad asked.

“It is a wishing bowl,” its owner replied lazily.

“What’s a wishing bowl?”

“Watch,” the man answered pointedly.

The simple nomad stepped back and took a seat on the floor. There he remained cross-legged, for the rest of the festival, intently watching the man with the wishing bowl. People approached one after another: all sorts of people from all walks of life, each searching for the same thing: the granting of a wish. In the beginning, women more often than men came to deposit their wishes, their innermost dreams, their hopes. As the night wore on, however, the men in attendance shirked their societal duty to appear beyond such hopes and dreams; and instead, they flocked toward the man with the bowl. The bowl’s owner, be-robed and underfed, did nothing. Nothing at all. For the entirety of the event, the emaciated man with the exquisite turban did nothing but sit there with his bowl. Everyone else, the visitors—they did all the work, all the talking; and, as a token for his listening, they left the man a small monetary sum. By the end of the festival, the wishing bowl was overflowing with various coins and currency, and still the man said and did nothing. Perplexed despite his attentiveness, the simple nomad was convinced there had to be something more to this strange man and his wishing bowl.

Thus, for forty days and forty nights, he came to the festival and, sitting cross-legged in a corner, watched the man with the wishing bowl. Each day was the same; each night its mirror image. Nothing changed. Always, the people came in droves. Always, the man just sat there. Always, the bowl was brimming with coins and currency. As the fortieth night waned, working its way into daybreak, the simple nomad was equally nonplussed. He decided there was nothing to be done but to approach the man with the wishing bowl once again.

“What’s the secret?” he asked somewhat belligerently.

“To what?” returned the bowl’s enigmatic owner.

“Every night you sit here with your bowl. You sit here and do nothing. You say nothing. Still, the people come. They talk endlessly and, then, before leaving at last, they leave you some small sum. They all do this, each and every one, so that by the end of each night your bowl is filled with money. You must be a very wealthy man. So, what’s your secret?”

“There is no secret, my pupil. Your eyes do not deceive you. It is exactly as you see it, because your eyes are open enough to see it. Yet, these people are blind. No, not truthfully, but figuratively. They do not see me and my bowl for what we are. They see us for what they want us to be. And what is that, my pupil? A conduit, a mechanism, through which they can grant themselves hope, a chance to believe. My bowl and I are like God, but in the flesh; not up there in the heavens, but something tangible, something to be seen. So I come here each night and sit, while these poor blind men and women come one-by-one with their wishes, their hopes and dreams, and I wait.”

The simple nomad was still at a loss, for if his eyes did not deceive him, then this man with his wishing bowl was willfully deceiving those who came to him each and every night, all for the sake of a dollar. He could not say why, but it enraged him. If this man was to them a God, or a conduit between the earthly and the heavenly, then what he was doing was an egregious abuse of power. The simple nomad said as much.

“Then, what you’re doing, it’s outrageous. You’re duping these people, letting them be deceived, and you’re taking their money. How could you be so, so, so….”

Completely calm, the orange-robed man with the turban replied: “Yes, I am letting them deceive themselves. I admit as much. Still, it might pay to ask what it is I do with the money they give me each and every night before you go on making accusations. Do not ask now, there is no need. But before I tell you, I must make one thing clear: Humans are foolish creatures; so foolish, in fact, they would rather believe in miracles than put in the work to make their own lives better. Saying this, I let them deceive themselves and I take their money. And I put it to use for them.”

“How so?” asked the simple nomad, his curiosity piqued.

“By doing what I can to make their lives better. Every day, I listen, and every night too. All I do is listen to the wishes and hopes and dreams of these people. And I’ve been doing so for quite some time. The faces become easy to memorize, the wishes hard to forget. Thus, remembering the faces and the wishes that belong to them, I do what I can to grant them. However I can. This is how I put their money to use for them. If a woman comes to me and says she wishes there was more food for her children, I take the money I’ve gathered and I find more food. If a man comes to me and tells me he wishes he had more time for himself, I come to his house in disguise. I offer him work as a fisherman for the day and all day long he sits by himself fishing, enjoying the solace he cannot find in an abode full of children and chores. When he returns at night with a few trout, his wife is happy and his children are fed, and he himself is as content as he’s been in years. And, in this way, I go on granting the people’s wishes—to the best of my ability.”

The simple nomad scratched his head, struggling to understand both the man’s generosity and the people’s asininity.

“But why don’t they just do these things of their own accord?”

The man with the wishing bowl smiled. “I’ve already told you, my pupil. Humans are too foolish for such action. They believe they are trapped, confined within the bounds of their own destinies. They maintain the conviction that this is what life is to them, what it will always be, and so they do not act. Ever. They remain as they are, expecting nothing to change, and rather than work towards the change they wish to see, they bring their wishes to me.”

The simple nomad was yet more confused.

“Why though? Why help them when they are unwilling to help themselves?”

Now the man in the orange robes with red trim grinned widely.

“Because I, like you,” he began, “had an insatiable curiosity. I too was struck dumb when I saw my predecessor sitting silently as these strangers filled his bowl with sigloi and sheqels and other such coins and currency. I too asked him these questions. And, finally, as we are now about to, he arrived at the conclusion I had been so desperate to hear: that what to them is a miracle is to us wise men a curse. We do not choose this burden; this burden chooses us. Our curiosity, our sight, our ability to really, truly, see distinguishes us. It sets us apart. And thus, as we come along and enter each other’s lives, the burden is lifted. From his hands to mine; and, now, from my hands to yours. It is a sorry fate—being the miracle-bearer for lazy, foolish humans. Nevertheless, it is a burden we wise men must carry. From the moment you asked me what this marvelous bowl was, I knew you were destined to be my successor. You may deny it. You may try to evade your duty. But come tomorrow you will be here. Always you will return here, until the bowl has passed from my hands to yours.”

“I could walk away now and be done with this whole farce,” the simple nomad retorted, not unkindly. “I am bound by nothing.”

“Once, I thought the same thing. But you have been chosen. Go away from here and see yourself. Tomorrow you will wake up where you were, sitting, watching me. Take your own life, go ahead. But come tomorrow you will be alive—sitting, just there, watching me. Go ahead, see for yourself. You will only be free of this burden when another wise man comes along. It is not the life you wanted, no. But it is the life you have. Someone must be the symbol—no, not just the symbol: someone must be the embodiment and actuality of hope. Someone must be what our foolish brothers and sisters could never be: proactive, revolutionary, inspiring, the bringers of change.”

Without speaking, the simple nomad stalked off, thinking the man with the wishing bowl the worst kind of fanatic. For hours, he wandered without aim, and when finally he fell asleep his dreams were restless. He had become an angel, with wings like that of a hawk. He was soaring beyond the skies, in the cosmos, alongside the moon. Its silvery side smiled at him, but its dark side only laughed harshly. From above, he saw all those below: those creatures of Earth that took to calling themselves human; those passive masses who had not yet learned to take action and do for themselves what no one else would or could. He watched the thirsty elephants go to the pond and drink; the hungry monkeys hop from tree to tree in search of food; the maddening moles burrowing deep beneath the ground for protection; and the foolish humans casting their hopes and dreams to a man in orange robes with red trim.

When he woke, he was sitting cross-legged in the corner of a pistachio-colored tent. He was watching the man in his dreams. His orange robes swirled slightly, delicately, in the desert breeze. Otherwise, he was unmoving, stoic. Noticing the simple nomad, he bowed his head and smiled, as if to say "Welcome back."


This is how the simple nomad became a wise man. And this is how he came to possess the wishing bowl. The bowl’s former owner instructed him to set off for Jerusalem immediately, warning that the so-called kingdom was greatly in need of the new wise man and his wishing bowl. The message was brief: Go to Jerusalem with your wishing bowl and erect a tent the likes of which these people have never seen; and there, in that tent the color of your choosing, sit with your wishing bowl and listen so that, come the earliest hours of morning, you can run along manufacturing the miracles humans are incapable of creating themselves.

And thus, the wise man with the wishing bowl came to Jerusalem and erected a tent the color of soaked wood. Every day and every night, he sat there with his bowl, listening to the hopes and dreams of the kingdom’s inhabitants. And every morning, in the earliest hours, he went about performing miracles—miracles for which he would never receive any credit; miracles that would be attributed to the work of Yahweh or God or Allah, to this or that saint, or this or that holy person.

Yet it was not Yahweh or God or Allah, or any of their messengers, who performed the daily miracles, who granted the wishes of the people, but rather the wise man with the wishing bowl. Always in disguise, always with the money the inhabitants had bequeathed him. Never was it the work of some heavenly, otherworldly presence but that of another human: A human wise enough to open their eyes and see; a human aware and conscious enough to know; smart and intelligent enough to recognize their potential, the ability to make change, the chance to make life better, not through hopes and wishes and dreams, but through action.

And yet, because this man was wise enough to see all of this, and because he was burdened with performing miracles and granting wishes, the people themselves never realized this. They remained in the dark, blind. They remained foolish, inutile beings, desperate and unaware. And so too did the wise man remain burdened, captured by his destiny; living in unhappy anticipation of the next clear-eyed person with an insatiable curiosity to come along. Only then would the wise man be free and the wishing bowl no longer his. But even then, humankind would remain a collective of gregarious fools.

Even then, humans would not see that they themselves were the masters of their own destiny, the creators of all meaning in their lives, the only ones capable of creating lasting change. Even then, humans would remain as they were: a pitiful fraction of their full potential. And it would all be the fault of the wise man and the wishing bowl.

What a curse, indeed! What dark powers of greed must have brought the wishing bowl into existence to keep the people thus confined!

And yes, the lives of those in Jerusalem would improve, but the lives of those elsewhere in the world would not, because they had no wise man with a wishing bowl: because they had only the rulers and the ruled, every one of whom was a greater fool than the next.