The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud. The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see. Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them. Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept. It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather. They did not catch the light in any particular way. They did not glow or sparkle. There was no mystic aura about them. But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest. With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse. She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps. The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.
By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium. Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable. The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income. This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful. But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words. This is what he read:
My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come. Amen. I pray you know how much you are loved. I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things. My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community. Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two. Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable. Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice. I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven. These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.
I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.” Then you would say, “When can I have them?” And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!” So now, I will tell you their story.
For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker. That was not always my name. For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance. When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things. One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time. As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road. I cut my hair and shaved my beard. I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place. Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.
Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road. Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.” I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven. “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.” I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger. We. He had said “we.” I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us. Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream. Five men altogether. Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men. My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.
I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm. Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell. The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly. As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.
I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run. When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt. “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it. That’s a Roman Gladius. A soldier’s sword. And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.”
I was dumbstruck. That sword had been nothing but trouble. That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life.
I looked at the big man. He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him. No anger. “You must still be hungry,” he said. “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous. “I threatened you!” “Yes. You did,” he said. “I forgive you.” “But I…” I started. “Let it go,” he said, quietly. “I have. What you bind on earth is bound in heaven. What you release on earth is released in heaven. I release it. I release you. Let it go.”
I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think.
I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me. He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand. “Here,” he said. “Keep this. This is the first Key to Heaven. Forgiveness.” “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said.
His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master. I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.” “What happened?” I asked. “They crucified him,” he said simply. “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it. And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that. But he forgave me. And he helped me forgive myself. He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.” “They did,” he said. “Well then how…when did he forgive you?” The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day. For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”
And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness. Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name. And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are.
The first key is Forgiveness. The Second is Gratitude. The third is Generosity. The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves. The fifth key is Integrity. The Sixth is Thoughtfulness. These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others. The seventh is Be Not Afraid. This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.
Then there are the three larger keys. These give the first keys their power. At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three. They are Faith, Hope and Love.
So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven. I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.” I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness. I hope you saw me live without fear. I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master. May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.
Peace be with you. I am always your brother,