How do you get to Heaven, and what about the other guy?
Here’s a story called St. Peter’s Mamma that was collected in Sicily by the folklorist Italo Calvino:
It’s been said that St. Peter’s mamma was a miser through and through. Never did she give to charity or spend a penny on her fellow man. One day while she was peeling leeks for soup a poor woman came by, begging. “Will you give me a little something, good woman?”
“That’s right, everybody comes to me begging....Well, take this, and don’t ask for any more!” And she gave her one leaf of a leek.
When the Lord called her into the next life, he sent her to Hell. The Head of Heaven was St. Peter, and as he sat on the doorstep, he heard a voice. “Peter! Just look at how I’m roasting! Son, go to the Lord, talk to him, get me out of this misery!”
St. Peter went to the Lord. “Lord,” he said, “my mother is in Hell and begging to be let out.”
“What! Your mother never did a good turn in her whole life? All she has to her credit is one little leek leaf. Try this. Give her the leek leaf to catch hold to, and pull her up to Paradise by it.”
An angel swooped down with the leek leaf. “Grab hold!” ordered the angel, and St. Peter’s mamma caught hold of the leaf. She was about to be pulled up out of Hell, when all the the poor souls there with her and seeing her rise, latched onto her skirts. So the angel drew up not only her but all the others as well. Then that selfish woman screamed, “No! Not you all! Get off! Just me! Just me! You ought to have had a saint for a son, as I did!” She kicked and shook them from her, jerking about so much to get free, that the leek leaf broke in two and St. Peter’s mamma went plummeting to the bottom of Hell.
This story plays with the tradition that we all know from cartoons depicting St. Peter as Heaven’s gatekeeper. Usually he sits at a little clerks desk, checking the incoming souls and sometimes turning one back. Peter himself is thought of as a forgiven sinner. He’s the one who Jesus was talking to when he said, “Oh ye of little faith!” and “Get thee behind me Satan!” and who denied his rabbi three times before the cock crowed twice. He’s humble, and has reason to be. He asks God to help his mamma, but doesn’t demand.
I hope you noticed that the leek leaf, Mamma’s singe act of charity, is more than enough to lift her out of Hell. It is enough to lift everyone who is uffering there. It’s her own kicking and shaking that sends her and all the rest back down. The leek itself was strong enough. Now it’s in two pieces, one for either hand. So if you would “be an angel”, you could lift all those souls, St. Peter’s mamma, too.
When the Universalists of the 18th and 19th centuries heard the Bible, they heard it teach universal salvation. God is love. God loves forever, all-- and God will be successful. No one can escape God’s love, not even if they want to. Universalists were less inclined to attribute as much free will to human beings as the Unitarians were. We don’t really have a choice about Heaven: it comes to us whether we want it or not. Why not enjoy that knowledge? Why be a victim of Heaven, or of love? Why not submit, in joy? And why not serve this love and joy, right here, right now?
Please remember that the New Testament does not actually speak of a Heaven that we “go to”, nor is there a single gate guarded by a St. Peter who’s eager to keep out sinners like himself. Take a look, and you’ll see a Heaven that comes to us, and it has twelve gates, not one. What better way to say that it is for all people, entering from all directions along every religious path? “Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah,” as the old song goes!
Universalists were aware that many people felt (and still feel) unhappy with a Heaven that that’s coming for to all. Some were so determined for there to be a Hell, that they set about constructing it on numerous sites. There they thought that the steady application of confinment, pain, hunger, and hopelessness to certain other persons would make Heaven on earth at least for Hell’s builders. (Some continue constructing hells that exceed in cruelty any that are attributed to God.) The Universalists were never content to just wait for God to show these folks the light. They actively worked to de-create these human Hells--opposing
slavery, ignorance, the conditions in prisons and asylums of the time.
Today Unitarian Universalists work actively to de-create Hell wherever its under construction. Sometime we get so absorbed in this that we overlook the love and the promise that our forbears celebrated. Sharing a meal like this can help us to remember. Take a hold of the leek leaf, and your neighbor’s hand, and enjoy.
© Craig Moro, all rights reserved