Gateway to the Classics: Christ Legends by Selma Lagerlöf
Christ Legends by  Selma Lagerlöf

Our Lord and Saint Peter

I T happened at the time when our Lord and Saint Peter were newly arrived in Paradise, after having wandered on earth and suffered hardships during many sorrowful years.

One can imagine that the change was a joy to Saint Peter! One can picture to oneself that it was quite another matter to sit upon Paradise Mountain and look out over the world, instead of wandering from door to door, like a beggar. It was another matter to walk about in the beautiful gardens of Paradise, instead of roaming around on earth, not knowing if one would be given house-room on a stormy night, or if one would be forced to tramp the highway in the chill and darkness.

One can imagine what a joy it must have been to get to the right place at last after such a journey. Saint Peter, to be sure, had not always been certain that all would end well. He couldn't very well help feeling doubtful and troubled at times, for it had been almost impossible for poor Saint Peter to understand why there was any earthly need for them to have such a hard time of it, if our Lord was lord of all the world.

Now, no yearning could come to torment him any more. That he was glad of this one can well believe.

Now, he could actually laugh at all the misery which he and our Lord had been forced to endure, and at the little that they had been obliged to content themselves with.

Once, when things had turned out so badly for them that Saint Peter thought he couldn't stand it any longer, our Lord had taken him to a high mountain, and had begun the ascent without telling him what they were there for.

They had wandered past the cities at the foot of the mountain, and the castles higher up. They had gone past the farms and cabins, and had left behind them the last wood-chopper's cave.

They had come at last to the part where the mountain stood naked, without verdure and trees, and where a hermit had built him a hut, wherein he might shelter needy travelers.

Afterward, they had walked over the snow-fields, where the mountain-rats sleep, and come to the piled-up ice masses, which stood on edge and a-tilt, and where scarcely a chamois could pass.

Up there our Lord had found a little red-breasted bird, that lay frozen to death on the ice, and he had picked up the bullfinch and tucked it in His bosom. And Saint Peter remembered he had wondered if this was to be their dinner.

They had wandered a long while on the slippery ice-blocks, and it had seemed to Saint Peter that he had never been so near perdition; for a deadly cold wind and a deadly dark mist enveloped them, and as far as he could discover, there wasn't a living thing to be found. And, still, they were only half-way up the mountain.

Then he begged our Lord to let him turn back.

"Not yet," said our Lord, "for I want to show you something which will give you courage to meet all sorrows."

For this they had gone on through mist and cold until they had reached an interminably high wall, which prevented them from going farther.

"This wall extends all around the mountain," said our Lord, "and you can't step over it at any point. Nor can any living creature see anything of that which lies behind it, for it is here that Paradise begins; and all the way up to the mountain's summit live the blessed dead."

But Saint Peter couldn't help looking doubtful. "In there is neither darkness nor cold," said our Lord, "but there it is always summer, with the bright light of suns and stars."

But Saint Peter was not able to persuade himself to believe this.

Then our Lord took the little bird which He had just found on the ice, and, bending backwards, threw it over the wall, so that it fell down into Paradise.

And immediately thereafter Saint Peter heard a loud, joyous trill, and recognized a bullfinch's song, and was greatly astonished.

He turned toward our Lord and said: "Let us return to the earth and suffer all that must be suffered, for now I see that you speak the truth, and that there is a place where Life overcomes death."

And they descended from the mountain and began their wanderings again.

And it was years before Saint Peter saw any more than this one glimpse of Paradise; but he had always longed for the land beyond the wall. And now at last he was there, and did not have to strive and yearn any more. Now he could drink bliss in full measure all day long from never-dying streams.

But Saint Peter had not been in Paradise a fortnight before it happened that an angel came to our Lord where He sat upon His throne, bowed seven times before Him, and told Him that a great sorrow must have come upon Saint Peter. He would neither eat nor drink, and his eyelids were red, as though he had not slept for several nights.

As soon as our Lord heard this, He rose and went to seek Saint Peter.

He found him far away, on one of the outskirts of Paradise, where he lay upon the ground, as if he were too exhausted to stand, and he had rent his garments and strewn his hair with ashes.

When our Lord saw him so distressed, He sat down on the ground beside him, and talked to him, just as He would have done had they still been wandering around in this world of trouble.

"What is it that makes you so sad, Saint Peter?" said our Lord.

But grief had overpowered Saint Peter, so that he could not answer.

"What is it that makes you so sad?" asked our Lord once again.

When our Lord repeated the question, Saint Peter took the gold crown from his head and threw it at our Lord's feet, as much as to say he wanted no further share in His honor and glory.

But our Lord understood, of course, that Saint Peter was so disconsolate that he knew not what he did. He showed no anger at him.

"You must tell me what troubles you," said He, just as gently as before, and with an even greater love in His voice.

But now Saint Peter jumped up; and then our Lord knew that he was not only disconsolate, but downright angry. He came toward our Lord with clenched fists and snapping eyes.

"Now I want a dismissal from your service!" said Saint Peter. "I can not remain another day in Paradise."

Our Lord tried to calm him, just as he had been obliged to do many times before, when Saint Peter had flared up.

"Oh, certainly you can go," said He, "but you must first tell me what it is that displeases you."

"I can tell you that I awaited a better reward than this when we two endured all sorts of misery down on earth," said Saint Peter.

Our Lord saw that Saint Peter's soul was filled with bitterness, and He felt no anger at him.

"I tell you that you are free to go whither you will," said He, "if you will only let me know what is troubling you."

Then, at last, Saint Peter told our Lord why he was so unhappy. "I had an old mother," said he, "and she died a few days ago."

"Now I know what distresses you," said our Lord. "You suffer because your mother has not come into Paradise."

"That is true," said Saint Peter, and at the same time his grief became so overwhelming that he began to sob and moan.

"I think I deserved at least that she should be permitted to come here," said he.

But when our Lord learned what it was that Saint Peter was grieving over, He, in turn, became distressed. Saint Peter's mother had not been such that she could enter the Heavenly Kingdom. She had never thought of anything except to hoard money, and to the poor who had knocked at her door she had never given so much as a copper or a crust of bread. But our Lord understood that it was impossible for Saint Peter to grasp the fact that his mother had been so greedy that she was not entitled to bliss.

"Saint Peter," said He, "how can you be so sure that your mother would feel at home here with us?"

"You say such things only that you may not have to listen to my prayers," said Saint Peter. "Who wouldn't be happy in Paradise?"

"One who does not feel joy over the happiness of others can not rest content here," said Our Lord.

"Then there are others than my mother who do not belong here," said Saint Peter, and our Lord observed that he was thinking of Him.

And He felt deeply grieved because Saint Peter had been stricken with such a heavy sorrow that he no longer knew what he said. He stood a moment and expected that Saint Peter would repent, and understand that his mother was not fit for Paradise. But the Saint would not give in.

Then Our Lord called an angel and commanded that he should fly down into hell and bring Saint Peter's mother to Paradise.

"Let me see how he carries her," said Saint Peter.

Our Lord took Saint Peter by the hand and led him out to a steep precipice which leaned slantingly to one side. And He showed him that he only had to lean over the precipice very, very little to be able to look down into hell.

When Saint Peter glanced down, he could not at first see anything more than if he had looked into a deep well. It was as though an endless chasm opened under him.

The first thing which he could faintly distinguish was the angel, who had already started on his way to the nether regions. Saint Peter saw how the angel dived down into the great darkness, without the least fear, and spread his wings just a little, so as not to descend too rapidly.

But when Saint Peter's eyes had become a little more used to the darkness he began to see more and more. In the first place, he saw that Paradise lay on a ring-mountain, which encircled a wide chasm, and it was at the bottom of this chasm that the Souls of the sinful had their abode. He saw how the angel sank and sank a long while without reaching the depths. He became absolutely terrified because it was such a long distance down there.

"May he only come up again with my mother!" said he.

Our Lord only looked at Saint Peter with great sorrowful eyes. "There is no weight too heavy for my angel to carry," said He.

It was so far down to the nether regions that no ray of sunlight could penetrate thither: there darkness reigned. But it was as if the angel in his flight must have brought with him a little clearness and light, so that it was possible for Saint Peter to see how it looked down there.

It was an endless, black rock-desert. Sharp, pointed rocks covered the entire foundation. There was not a green blade, not a tree, not a sign of life.

But all over, on the sharp rocks, were condemned souls. They hung over the edges, whither they had clambered that they might swing themselves up from the ravine; and when they saw that they could get nowhere, they remained up there, petrified with anguish.

Saint Peter saw some of them sit or lie with arms extended in ceaseless longing, and with eyes fixedly turned upwards. Others had covered their faces with their hands, as if they would shut out the hopeless horror around them. They were all rigid; there was not one among them who had the power to move. Some lay in the water-pools, perfectly still, without trying to rise from them.

But the most dreadful thing of all was—there was such a great throng of the lost. It was as though the bottom of the ravine were made up of nothing but bodies and heads.

And Saint Peter was struck with a new fear. "You shall see that he will not find her," said he to our Lord.

Once more our Lord looked at him with the same grieved expression. He knew of course that Saint Peter did not need to be uneasy about the angel.

But to Saint Peter it looked all the while as if the angel could not find his mother in that great company of lost souls. He spread his wings and flew back and forth over the nether regions, while he sought her.

Suddenly one of the poor lost creatures caught a glimpse of the angel, and he sprang up and stretched his arms towards him and cried: "Take me with you! Take me with you!"

Then, all at once, the whole throng was alive. All the millions upon millions who languished in hell, roused themselves that instant, and raised their arms and cried to the angel that he should take them with him to the blessed Paradise.

Their shrieks were heard all the way up to our Lord and Saint Peter, whose hearts throbbed with anguish as they heard.

The angel swayed high above the condemned; but as he traveled back and forth, to find the one whom he sought, they all rushed after him, so that it looked as though they had been swept on by a whirlwind.

At last the angel caught sight of the one he was to take with him. He folded his wings over his back and shot down like a streak of lightning, and the astonished Saint Peter gave a cry of joy when he saw the angel place an arm around his mother and lift her up.

"Blessed be thou that bringest my mother to me!" said he.

Our Lord laid His hand gently on Saint Peter's shoulder, as if he would warn him not to abandon himself to joy too soon.

But Saint Peter was ready to weep for joy, because his mother was saved. He could not understand that anything further would have the power to part them. And his joy increased when he saw that, quick as the angel had been when he had lifted her up, still several of the lost souls had succeeded in attaching themselves to her who was to be saved, in order that they, too, might be borne to Paradise with her.

There must have been a dozen who clung to the old woman, and Saint Peter thought it was a great honor for his mother to help so many poor unfortunate beings out of perdition.

Nor did the angel do aught to hinder them. He seemed not at all troubled with his burden, but rose and rose, and moved his wings with no more effort than if he were carrying a little dead birdling to heaven.

But then Saint Peter saw that his mother began to free herself from the lost souls that had clung to her. She gripped their hands and loosened their hold, so that one after another tumbled down into hell.

Saint Peter could hear how they begged and implored her; but the old woman did not desire that any one but herself should be saved. She freed herself from more and more of them, and let them fall down into misery. And as they fell, all space was filled with their lamentations and curses.

Then Saint Peter begged and implored his mother to show some compassion, but she would not listen, and kept right on as before.

And Saint Peter saw how the angel flew slower and slower, the lighter his burden became. Such fear took hold of Saint Peter that his legs shook, and he was forced to drop on his knees.

Finally, there was only one condemned soul who still clung to St. Peter's mother. This was a young woman who hung on her neck and begged and cried in her ear that she would let her go along with her to the blessed Paradise.

The angel with his burden had already come so far that Saint Peter stretched out his arms to receive his mother. He thought that the angel had to make only two or three wing-strokes more to reach the mountain.

Then, all of a sudden, the angel held his wings perfectly still, and his countenance became dark as night.

For now the old woman had stretched her hands back of her and gripped the arms of the young woman who hung about her neck, and she clutched and tore until she succeeded in separating the clasped hands, so that she was free from this last one also.

When the condemned one fell the angel sank several fathoms lower, and it appeared as though he had not the strength to lift his wings again.

He looked down upon the old woman with a deep, sorrowful glance; his hold around her waist loosened, and he let her fall, as if she were too heavy a burden for him, now that she was alone.

Thereupon he swung himself with a single stroke up into Paradise.

But Saint Peter lay for a long while in the same place, and sobbed, and our Lord stood silent beside him.

"Saint Peter," said our Lord at last, "I never thought that you would weep like this after you had reached Paradise."

Then God's old servant raised his head and answered: "What kind of a Paradise is this, where I can hear the moans of my dearest ones, and see the sufferings of my fellow men!"

The face of our Lord became o'ercast by the deepest sorrow. "What did I desire more than to prepare a Paradise for all, of nothing but light and happiness?" He said. "Do you not understand that it was because of this I went down among men and taught them to love their neighbors as themselves? For as long as they do this not, there will be no refuge in heaven or on earth where pain and sorrow cannot reach them."

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