The Soul of Wit

"Alright John."
"Alright Bill."
"Want to hear a joke?"
"Not particularly."
"Good. There's these three monks..."
"I feared as much."
"I know you did. Anyway..."
"So there's these three monks."
"Franciscan, are they?"
"They're what you might call Oriental."
"I don't think I can."
"So they're monks of indeterminate religion?"
"For the sake of argument, yes."
"I see."
"Can we get onto the joke now?"
"By all means."
"Carry on."
"So there's these three monks.."
"...of indeterminate religion..."
"...of indeterminate religion, yes, and one day they take a different route to the place where they drink their green tea..."
"A green teashop?"
"More of a glade."
"A green tea glade."
"If you will, yes."
"Glad that's cleared up. Do carry on."
"Anyway, they take a different route, and they come round a mountain a different way from usual, and they see a hillside of absolutely exquisite beauty."
"How exquisite?"
"What do you want, a number?"
"Compared with the Cotswolds, say."
"Oh, a thousand times as beautiful as the Cotswolds."
"Roughly one kilocotswold then."
"About that, yes."
"Sounds nice."
"It was. And they decide to venerate the place by - "
"Venerate it to their undefined god or gods?"
"Yes, and they decide to commemorate their astonishment at this sight by building a cairn."
"They commemorate the natural beauty by building a heap of rocks on it?"
"Well... yes."
"Do go on."
"Alright. So they spend an hour or so building a small cairn by the side of the path. And when they're finished, they go off for their green tea."
"In the green tea shop."
"And when they come back, the cairn's gone."
"Not from their point of view, it isn't. There's a not a trace of it left. No flattened grass, no stray rocks, nothing."
"That'll be Greenpeace at work."
"This is long before Greenpeace."
"In the distant past."
"So this joke is about a trio of monks of unspecified religion building a heap of rocks to venerate god or gods unknown, in an unspecified location in an undefined period of history?"
"I see you're on the ball today. Anyway, they look around, and everything is as it was before.."
"Still at one kilocotswold."
"Yes, but there's one small difference: in the background, they see a small figure, with an enormous backpack, walking slowly down the hill."
"Mountain. But they think, no, he's nothing to do with this, the stones probably rolled away."
"Despite all the available evidence."
"Of course. They're monks, for Christ's sake. So they think it over, and decide their unspecified deity or deities weren't satisfied with a mere cairn, and removed it as a sign of displeasure."
"A case of the mills of the gods grinding slow, and being bloody hard to please to boot."
"I can see you're a religious man. Anyway, they decide a shrine would be more fitting."
"Further unwarranted land development."
"Yes. They round up a few materials, take a day over its construction, and by late evening there's a neat little shrine on the mountainside. And, satified, they wander off again for their green tea."
"They like their green tea."
"So would you, if your life consisted of ceaseless prayer and meditation."
"And rapacious building work on the sly."
"Anyway, they come back from their green tea, and find it's gone."
"What has?"
"The shrine."
"Good good."
"They're nonplussed. And while they're standing around wondering what happened to it, they notice a small figure, with an enormous backpack, walking slowly down the hi- mountain."
"And they call the police?"
"No, they leave him be, and reach the same conclusion as before."
"Veritable towers of deductive reasoning, these monks."
"As I say, they're monks. So they plan a chapel."
"I thought they were Oriental?"
"Ye-es. But also of indeterminate religion."
"And indeterminate culture, it would seem."
"...sure, why not."
"Do carry on."
"Why, thank you."
"Don't mention it."
"So they spend a month building a chapel, and dedicate it to their, uh, to them."
"And go off for green tea?"
"And go off for green tea. And when they come back - "
"'sgone indeed. No trace of it left. Plants growing happily as before."
"Who would have thought it."
"And in the background there's a small figure, with an enormous backpack, walking slowly down the mountain."
"Well, he might fall over otherwise."
"I'll leave that open to speculation - "
"Well - "
" - after the joke. They're getting a mite suspicious by now.."
"Amazing. Nothing gets past these monks."
"One of the many benefits of indeterminate religion. But they decide not to leap to conclusions, and start planning a temple."
"If at first you don't succeed, keep failing."
"I couldn't possibly comment. They get wood, nails, tools, and over the course of the next year, they put together a splendid temple."
"Nice, is it?"
"Very. Prayer wheels, fishpond, shrine inside, the works."
"Presumably green tea is about to occur."
"How astute. They wander off to get their fix."
"And they come back to find..."
"No temple."
"Oh, it is. And there's no trace of any building whatsoever. Not even a bent nail lying in the grass."
"Remaining at a steady one kilocotswold."
"Unfailingly so. And in the background, there's a small figure, with an enormous rucksack, walking slowly down the mountain."
"Dropping the occasional bent nail?"
"How very presumptive of you."
"I'm clearly not cut out for the monastic lifestyle."
"Evidently not. Moving on. Long story short. For their next trick, they settle on a church."
"Of indeterminate religion."
"And these three monks build it themselves."
"Over twenty years, yes."
"Must be getting on a bit now."
"They're immortal. Obviously."
"I blame the green tea. Never trusted that stuff."
"I suspect the rancid butter myself."
"So they have a church."
"And what a church. A three-hundred-foot spire, altar, naves, apses, everything a discriminating churchgoer requires."
"Five-star review in Which Church? magazine."
"Naturally. But to no avail. When they return from their - "
" - highly suspicious - "
" - green tea, it's nowhere to be seen. Just a small figure, with an enormous backpack, walking slowly down the hill."
"Let me guess. They leave him alone."
"Yes, although they're casting distrustful glances in his direction."
"About bloody time."
"But they think, well, this obviously hasn't been enough, we're being tested, failure is not an option. What this needs is - "
"Oh, the suspense.."
"A cathedral."
"And so three hundred years pass - "
" - the green tea again - "
" - and a mighty cathedral takes shape. Spires to shame the heavens, flying buttresses of breathtaking splendour, a roof so high that wispy clouds form beneath it. The doors are carved with scenes from every major religious work, the walls are of flawless craftsmanship, and the monks sit back and think yes, this is what this place deserves."
"Or did deserve before they built a bloody great edifice on it."
"Well, yes. They go off to have their green tea."
"You'd think they'd have taken a thermos."
"Who could presume to understand the workings of the religious mind?"
"Not me, clearly."
"Nor me. So we can only speculate at their thoughts when, on returning, they see the verdant mountainside once more restored to its natural state."
"I'm guessing something along the lines of 'fuck!'"
"Possibly, possibly. And, of course, in the background is the little figure with the enormous backpack, walking slowly down the hill."
"I would expect nothing less."
"They resolve to have one last try."
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"They decide that their only hope is to build a theocracy."
"Good. I'm glad they decided that. Jolly good thinking, that monk. A theocracy. Capital idea. Yes. Good."
"You don't know what a theocracy is, do you?"
"Not the foggiest."
"It's a state ruled by priests."
"Or, in this case, monks. So they set out building ceaselessly, rounding up nearby tribes, training, instructing, working without pause for a thousand years."
"I might have to try this green tea sometime."
"And when the sun rises on the thousandth anniversary of the cathedral's disappearance, they step back to look on their creation with what would have been, had they not been monks and above such earthly emotions, pride. People working, a hierarchy of priests priesting - "
"Priesting, yes, cathedrals, churches, temples, shrines everywhere, and all the machinations of civilisation ticking away neatly, and in the middle of it all, the beautiful mountainside."
"Which has probably dropped a few decacotswolds by now."
"Less than you'd think. It truly is a wonderful achievement. And they go off for a well-deserved cup of green tea in one of the many green tea palaces in their theocracy. And when they come back.."
"I wonder what's happened..."
"It's all gone."
"Despite the fact that they were in it at the time."
"Uh, yes."
"I see."
"They step outside, turn round, and the mountainside is an unspoilt as it was to begin with."
"One in the eye for religious types."
"In the background - "
" - small figure - "
" - enormous backpack - "
" - walking slowly - "
" - down the mountain."
"For a change."
"And they finally snap. They march up to the figure - "
"Ah! When you least expect it, a glimmer of intelligence. There may yet be sentient life on Earth!"
" - they march up to the figure, grab him by the lapels, and demand of him angrily, 'listen here - we built a cairn here, and when we came back it was gone, and there you were, walking slowly down the hill. We built a shrine, and the same thing happened - and there you were again. And the same bloody thing happened with our chapel, temple, church, cathedral and theocracy, and you've been there every time. So what the screaming fuck have you done with them all?'"
"I'm on tenterhooks, I really am."
"And the small figure with the enormous backpack stops walking slowly down the mountain, looks up and says - "
"He says - "
" 'Nothing.' "
"He says 'Nothing.' "
"That's it? That's the punchline?"
"Prepare for a whole new kind of hurt."

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