I dreamt I was standing at the pearly gates, clutching a handful of coupons. What are those? St. Peter asked. My volunteering coupons, I replied, placing them in his hand. Then I explained how I had earned them: all the times I had pitched in at church answering phones, singing in the choir, volunteering to help at the AIDS home and visiting shut-ins.
My dream took a detour when St. Peter suddenly handed the coupons back.
You’ve got it all wrong, my love, he said gently. You can’t buy your way into heaven.
I was about to protest when the alarm clock shrieked and I awoke.
I was a little miffed. It hasn’t exactly been a picnic chalking up spiritual brownie points. For one thing, no matter how big your stash may be, you always run into someone who has more.
My friend, the mother of two young girls, recently volunteered to oversee our church’s bazaar and flea market. She also visits nursing homes, organizes the children’s liturgy, takes elderly people to medical appointments and volunteers at her kids’ school.
Just envisioning her stack of coupons exhausts me.
I worked hard at being a straight-A Christian as a kid. In my fervor to follow the church’s rules, I showed up every Saturday without fail at the confessional. I had a very slim grasp of numerical theory, so I couched all my sins the same way. I disobeyed my mom a hundred times, I announced. Fought with my sister a hundred times. And lied a hundred times.
To his credit, the priest did not emit even one snicker.
I went to Holy Communion every Sunday, carefully fasting for the prescribed amount of time beforehand. I prayed fervently for the living and the dead, including my deceased pet turtles, Wormy and Flat-Top.
Then I blew it. My report cards studded with gold stars went up in flames when I trundled off to college, leaving behind my stuffed animals, my creaky old bikeand my Bible. Saying prayers and going to church went out the window the day I opened a philosophy book and discovered the brave new world of atheism.
Atheism is cool, I thought. If there’s no God, you can throw out the rules and regulations. No more sins. No more sermons. No more penance. Let the party begin!
The party went on for about 20 years. Finally, sporting a massive spiritual hangover, I returned to my childhood faith.
The rules had relaxed. The priest faced the congregation and spoke English instead of Latin. Women no longer covered their heads in church. The fast before Communion had been shortened.
It was not long, however, before my coupon fetish reared its head again, but this time with a new twist. Instead of scoring spiritual points for toeing the line, I began awarding them to myself for serving the less fortunate.
If I put $30 in the collection basket for the poor, I issued myself a generosity coupon. If I visited a lady at the hospital, I grabbed bonus points for compassion.
The notion of unmerited love was foreign to me. The idea that God might love me just for myself was a bit too much to handle. It was impossible to believe someone might love you even though you slept through Mass and got straight F’s in school.
Then, one day, I remembered the story of the thief dying on the cross next to Jesus. Bleeding, sweating and crying, the man had little to show for his life. And he asked for so little: Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
That’s all. Just remember me. Don’t forget me. Keep me in mind. The same stuff we say when we apply for a job and we know we lack the credentials. As we shuffle out the door, we murmur, Keep me in mind if something turns up.
Christ did not reply, You may enter my kingdom if you can prove you tithed, attended the synagogue and ministered to your fellow man.
He simply recognized the man’s sincerityand desperationand that was enough. Then he uttered the words that surely were a balm to a tortured soul: Today you will be with me in paradise.
Today. Not tomorrow or next week. Not after you’ve done time for your sins. Not after you’ve made amends for your life. Right now.
I dreamt about St. Peter again last night. This time, he took me on a tour. In the distance I saw a huge banquet table. A real celebration. A true feast. And there was a sign over the table: All you can eat. Come as you are. And it’s all free.
As I danced joyfully through the pearly gates, I discovered a secret. They had been open all along.