From: Christian Stories of Wisdom
The knight was as comely as an angel. Even if he rode all day, on his return he was fresh and the folds in his clothing were as unruffled as they had been before he set out.
And yet he spread horror. He desecrated, burned, killed, and ravaged men and beasts who crossed his path. He was so cruel that people even thought he was born heartless.
He did not distinguish between respected holy days and normal days, never went to church, and never fasted, not even during Lent. And rumor had it that he had never in his life heard a sermon. “He isn’t even baptized,” it was whispered. He instilled the fear of an antichrist. On Good Friday, the knight joyfully proposed to his companions that they feast and then to go hunting. But this time, the other guests refused in spite of the terror he inspired in them.
“Today is Good Friday, Sir, the day that Christ underwent crucifixion. We can neither eat nor go hunting on this day. It would be blasphemy.”
“I don’t care about that.” He drew his sword and asked, “Are you going to eat with me?”
In a predicament, they accepted unwillingly, and the companions took their places at the table. They ate in silence and in great affliction, as if each mouthful burned their throats. After the meal they mounted their horses.
In the heart of the forest stood a small chapel where a hermit lived. The holy man knew the knight and prayed to God every day that the knight’s bloodthirsty fury might be appeased.
The companions riding past the chapel pulled on their horses’ bridles and turned toward the knight.
“Would you be so good as to allow us to pause here, Sir? At least on this Good Friday we would like to confess our sins.”
“Go ahead. But be quick about it!” replied the knight.
He could not persuade his entire company, but he was sickened by them. He moved away a little so that he couldn’t see the cross.
But the hermit saint came out of the chapel and accosted him.
“Good day, Sir. May peace be with you!”
“Peace? No thanks, for I don’t want peace.”
“What, even on this holy day you commit blasphemy?”
“I didn’t realize it. But since you insist, yes, I have committed blasphemy, and your God doesn’t frighten me.”
The holy man cast him an odd look.
“I can see that your soul has gone astray. You ought to confess and repent.”
The knight laughed in his face and turned his horse away, but the priest persisted.
“It grieves me to see your heart is so hard. You can’t continue to damn yourself like this.”
“I will damn myself as much as I wish, and do not say another word or you will be the first one to die.”
“Don’t you want to confess your sins?”
“Or even say a simple prayer?”
“I have never said a prayer.”
“Not even an amen?”
“Leave me! Understood?” retorted the knight, drawing his sword.
The hermit pondered.
“Could you at least take this keg and go and fetch some water for me? Unless it is beyond your strength.”
The knight looked at the small keg and, further away, the clear river that flowed.
“That much I can do,” he replied, sniggering.
If he were to atone for his crimes by carrying out this small favor, he could earn favor with God.
He dismounted, took the little bucket, and dipped it into the water. But not a drop of water would go in. He withdrew the bucket as empty as it was before.
“This is witchcraft!” exclaimed the knight.
“I have never come across such a hard-hearted man,” replied the hermit. “You haven’t even captured a single drop in the keg. A child in your place would have brought it back brimming with water.”
The knight swore and cursed, but still did not ask for help from his companions. His jaw was tense. He took the keg again:
“I will not give up. I swear I will take it back filled.”
He motioned to his companions to go their own way, and he spurred his horse.
He stopped at the first spring he found and dipped the little keg into it, but it would not fill. In a violent temper, he held it under the water for some time, as if to drown it, but the keg came out as empty as it was when it went in. The knight cursed and shouted in fury, but continued on his way.
Soon there was not one spring in the country, whether pond, river, or stream, that he had not visited. One day his horse dropped dead and he had to continue on foot with the keg around his neck. He had no money, for he was neither a lord nor a merchant.
Since leaving, he had depleted all his resources. He fed on fruit from the trees and stalks of grain. He slept in barns and haystacks. Sometimes a peasant would threaten him with a pitchfork and he had to make his bed under the hedgerows.
He crossed into Italy, almost an island surrounded by water. He held the keg submerged in seawater for so long the salt affected his skin.
After some years the former knight was no longer recognizable. He’d had to swap his magnificent clothes for rags found along the way. He was thin and haggard; his bones were poking through his skin. His eyebrows had grown thick, his eyes sunken. He seldom spoke, he moved with great difficulty, and the keg that had once seemed light to him weighed around his neck like a lintel.
Finally he decided to go back to the chapel. He was going to return to the hermit the accursed keg which he had never been able to fill with the slightest drop of water from any known source in the world.
Since a great deal of strength was required for the return journey, the knight was weary when he arrived. He dropped from exhaustion on the path leading to the retreat of the holy hermit, who had to run and set him on his feet again. The hermit accompanied the knight to the chapel and laid him down before the cross.
“I recognize my keg,” said the holy man. “Who gave it to you? I gave it to a knight ages ago.”
“I am that knight,” he babbled. “I have roamed the world, I have been as far as the Black Sea. You have driven me mad with your keg. It never filled with a single drop. And I feel I shall not live much longer.”
Then the knight noticed that the holy hermit was flustered, that he cried, wept, and invoked God for him with his whole soul. He saw that the hermit was so zealous that the knight was disconcerted. His distress moved him. Why was this man, whom he hardly knew, taking such care of him?
“Now, confess,” said the hermit saint. “Now or never. You are on the threshold of the Eternal Kingdom.”
The knight surrendered. He stated his murders, crimes, thefts, pillages. For years he had tormented the peasants.
They used to call him the devil, a reputation he enjoyed. His wish was to be feared, and he had feared to be loved. But suddenly he understood. He felt the suffering of those he had persecuted. Thanks to his years of restless wandering, his soul was ready to open. His heart was softened by a flame. Love surged in him – a love that found its outlet in a tear in the corner of his eye. It ran down his cheek and fell as a sheer drop into the bucket.
And…a miracle! This keg that no water had been able to penetrate was filled entirely by a tear.
“You see. You who could not give anything because you were unable to take anything. As soon as you have received, you have given. Your soul is now at rest.”
The knight with the keg went to sleep rather than died.