The Emperor’s New Theologian

The emperor needed a new theologian to defend the marvelous cloth in which he paraded.

In the aftermath of the emperor’s parade in his birthday suit made, supposedly, of the invisible cloth that only the most noble souls could appreciate, there was a great silence in the palace.

The emperor had called his chaplain to his chamber and asked him, “Did you see the new suit of clothes that was prepared for me on my birthday?”

The chaplain, a grumpy old man, made a grunt and the emperor asked him to repeat himself.

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“I was not at the procession,” the old priest said.

“But you heard about the wonderful cloth?” asked the emperor.

“I heard various commentaries.”

“And what do you think of the marvelous cloth that reveals the purity of the beholder?”

The chaplain took a deep breath.

“I heard that you were swindled. That you exposed yourself to the whole city and caused much consternation.”

The emperor decided the chaplain needed to retire and hired a younger man to attend to him spiritually. A new theologian would be able to understand contemporary problems with greater depth of thought. The prime minister scouted around and found a theologian who had been rather unjustly neglected in the circles of his colleagues. His magnum opus, The Kama Sutra: A Spiritual Justification, had been published privately, but a rich uncle bought all the copies and shredded them before any damage might be done to the young cleric’s career. The priest was thrilled to be called to court and presented himself before the throne with an eagerness that would have been a red flag to more prudent observers.

“There is some work for you to do,” said the emperor. “Some very philistine pamphlets have appeared saying that I have been fooled by the weavers and that the transcendent cloth I wore for my birthday procession was a fraud.”

The priest took the various pages of the pamphlets to study them. He appeared a few days later in the throne room.

“What have you decided?” asked the emperor. “Were those awful, heartless people right about the wonderful cloth?”

“I have prepared a statement about that,” said the new chaplain, who was very articulate in some ways. 

He handed the pages to the emperor, who read them rapidly. His Highness decided that the chaplain would read them to the whole court the next day and that he would again don the marvelous cloth for the occasion. All the courtiers gathered for the event, but most seemed a bit uncomfortable. When the emperor arrived, escorted by his guards, most of the courtiers were looking at the parquet floor of the throne room.

The new chaplain began to read: “Concerning the marvelous cloth of the emperor’s birthday suit and the aesthetics of transcendence,” he began. 

That was the title of his essay. He continued:

What are clothes? They are meant to protect the body. God made the body, however, and sometimes such protections are superfluous. Besides, the human person is body and soul and the soul is aware of spiritual properties that the eyes cannot detect. The transcendent aesthetic points to that mystery, blesses it, and expresses compassion, without denying inconvenient truth, but not emphasizing it, either.

Some people, even clerics, or, maybe especially clerics, who are of a narcissistic and elitist kind of ilk, refuse to understand the new aesthetic of the emperor’s birthday suit, which is the quintessence of the modern dictum “less is more.” Their arguments are specious and besides very divisive. In no way did the emperor imply that clothes were not to be worn. Exceptional circumstances are exceptional, that is why they are called that. The transcendent message of his birthday suit requires deep reflection and more openness to others who do not necessarily share our same beliefs.

The wondrous cloth and its properties are strictly of a private nature. We respect the privacy of those who would like to don the modern aesthetic revealed in the work of the so-called empty loom, which is a very disparaging way some have described the instrument that produced (or not) the cloth. 

The cloth reveals the wideness of need for acceptance and praising what has not ever been accepted or praised, although even in a non-formal and quite unofficial way. Such a discovery of openness should be blessed and not cursed, as some negative critics have had the temerity to do. Narrow minds see things narrowly. And without charity. Even a man who enters our house without permission in the middle of the night may sneeze and we should all say, “God bless you.” That does not imply we are in favor of his burglary or whatever he had in mind. It would be impolite and indicate bad breeding not to bless him in his nasal circumstances.

The whole court heard this message in silence. The emperor thought he remembered the chaplain’s discourse to be more compelling. He regarded the burglary reference a bit trop. As he looked around the throne room, he did not manage to meet many eyes. In fact, no one was looking his way. The chaplain turned a page and continued.

The transcendent aesthetic requires much prudence. If someone is asked about the wondrous colors and qualities of the emperor’s suit, his or her response should be as brief as possible. Criticism of any comments, including characterizations like, “He is just saying that to make points,” are really bad form and perhaps reveal a history of bad digestion. 

There is also the danger that some might misinterpret a positive response as a validation of a wholesale rejection of clothing, which would have serious consequences for whole industries, not to mention retail sales. We still insist on clothing that is visible as the best for all circumstances. We are certainly not blessing social nakedness. 

Our affirmation of a transcendent aesthetic does not contradict centuries of custom. It only points beyond to a spiritual reality that our emperor has accessible to him, even if we do not see it. Senses are for feeling, not for seeing. We all need freedom from the iron laws of logic and its terrible and oppressive restrictions on our desires. 

The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky hath written: “Two times two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Two times two makes four is a fop standing with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that two times two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are going to praise everything, two times two makes five is also a very charming little thing…” And so, I say boldly: the emperor’s sartorial logic is greater than mere mathematical nonsense and is also a very charming thing. God made Adam and Eve clothes from animal skins, but what if He didn’t? Couldn’t He also have neglected to do so?

The emperor was not sure about that part of the apologia because it implied that others had come to the conclusion that the whole affair was bogus. Nevertheless, he put a good face on the defense.

“Well, there we are. Is there any disagreement to this transcendent aesthetic?” The emperor had stood up from his throne.

No one stirred, not even a mouse, is the operative phrase to describe the chamber.

“Perhaps his excellency, the bishop of this our capital city has something to say about the explanation,” said the emperor.

“I liked the part about not rejecting clothing,” said his excellency in a low voice.

“There you have it,” said the emperor, who then exited the throne room in silence.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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