The Key


Only I am allowed to come here; alone of all my generation.

I was, what, seven? -- when they brought me here. For a week beforehand they had been telling me what an honour it was, how much everybody envied me.

"My son," my mother had said to them. "I bring him to you as a gift."

Years later, I passed through my old home. A young man said "Peace, holy father," and everything in me wanted to say "Do you remember when we used to play at being soldiers with twigs for swords and old blankets for tunics?"

I said "The good God has blessed us with sunshine today," and went on my way.

The first time I saw this ceremony, my robes still felt heavy, rough and hot. I still felt the feelings of pride and fear every time I put them on. I was awestruck by the drums and the gongs and the clouds of incense; and the voices of the singers and the grand words of the liturgy. The new High Priest was given his Key of office, and the outer doors of the shrine were flung open, so that -- for the first time in nineteen years -- priests and novices and laity could see tunnel and the inner doors that lay beyond it. I felt as if I was falling and floating at once.

As I stand in the temple now, with the key of office in my hand, I feel a great calmness. I feel nothing: the greatest moment of my life simply does not seem real. Years ago, when the messenger came with the news that my other had died, I smiled, thanked him, and returned to my books.

The seven elders pick up the coffin of the dead High Priest, a huge gong sounds, and fourteen servants pull back the two huge iron gates that lead to the inner shrine. The gates never open, except on the day of a High Priest's funeral. In olden times the voices of departed priests could be heard, thundering through the grill at the top of the gate. The voice of prophecy has been silent for five centuries, but nevertheless, two priests are always in attendance at the gate, in case the divine wisdom should speak again.

We open the inner gates, and the eight of us walk down that long, holy tunnel. The elders lay the coffin of the old high priest down, gently, next to the coffin of his predecessor. The embalmers do their work well. The old man looks as he did nineteen years ago -- but for the dust and cobwebs on his face.

There is a final blowing of trumpets, and the seven elders turn and leave me in the tunnel with the bodies of my predecessors -- the unbroken line back to the founding of our religion.

They will now stand guard at the outer gates, for as long as those gates are left open. I may remain here for as long as I choose; and in that time, if anyone else were to enter the tunnel they would be struck dead by God. When I choose to leave, the gates will be shut, and they will not open again until it is time to bury me.

Some High Priests have stayed in the tunnel for as much as a month. One holy man carried his own coffin into the tunnel, and, after months without food, lay down in it and died.

I shall do no such thing; there is too much to be done in the world.

The tunnel is longer than I had thought. The walls are lined on both sides with priest's coffins. The light from the temple has faded to a point behind me before I reach the end.

The most recent coffins are elaborate; fine wood; silk shrouds; gold around the priests necks; costly embalmments. The older ones are simpler, and the ones I strain to see in the dark now are very primitive indeed. At first, this shocks me. Then, it thrills me slightly: these giants of our faith were real people; with real wooden coffins. The temple which the first prophet had made to shelter God after his ordeal was perhaps nothing more than a rough wooden shack, over which our present magnificent building was constructed. It is nice to be reminded of the simple things from which we came.

It is almost pitch dark, now, and I have reached the end of the tunnel. The corpse of the first prophet of all is before me; little more than a pile of bones in a rough sack. This poor grave moves me more than all the others. Of all my generation, I am the only one now living who will see the bones of he who brought a cup of water to God, as he lay, tired and thirsty on the hill. The story has been told so often that it has lost his power to move me: how the forces of the world had rallied against him, and screamed and cursed and thrown all their weapons, and how God, through his body was in agony, never gave way to hate; and how one man in all his generation had taken pity, and God had looked up, and smiled, and drank, and said "in return for this drink, I shall make a well flow from this mountain that shall not run dry before the end of the world."

I have reached the third and final door.

It is very ordinary, made of wood. Perhaps it comes from the original hut that the first prophet had built to shelter the wounded God.

There is light beyond the door.

Who has kept candles burning in this chamber, that no-one has visited in nineteen years?

Then, I see the man.

He is quite old; and desperately thin. his hair and his beard have grown ong. he is naked. There are scars on his body. Chains manacled his wrist and his feet.

"Great Prophet?" I manage to say.

"Name not my imprisoner to me," says the weak voice.

I feel sick. I am spinning and floating and doubting and my robes feel heavy and rough and hot. I think of the beautiful tapestry that hangs in the fourth hall of the temple; that shows God stepping into his fiery chariot; and being welcomed back to the heavenly realms by the legions of godlings; and the First Prophet, at the doors of his simple wooden temple weeping bitterly and imploring him to say.

"He had me at his mercy" murmurs the old man. "He would not let me go."

The unbroken chain of priests; the teachings of the prophets. I feel like a child who had made a castle on the beach; and tried to take it home with him.

All over.

"All those thousands of years..."

"All that time, yes."

"And did no-one know?"

"One man in a generation."

"Thank you for choosing me."

Perhaps I am the only man in a thousand years to hear him laugh. "The elders chose you."

Perhaps they had sincerely thought that I was the most pious man of my time. Perhaps they thought that I could be trusted. Perhaps they hated me so much that they would sooner pass this secret on to me than find out for themselves. "Don't worry too much about feeling like a priest" my old teacher had once said to me "Just do the things that a priest ought to do."

"I will send for a blacksmith" I say "to break these chains."

A half smile. "No earthly hammer breaks these chains"

"Then I will search to the ends of the earth to find something that will."

"No need to go to the ends of the earth for that. The first prophet gave it to his disciple; and he to his, and he to his."

The three doors are closed behind me; they will not open again in my lifetime. The key of office is around my neck; it will go to my successor, who I will never know. I will spend my life in service to the poor. I will meekly challenge kings and statesmen about their piety. I will not accept many of the privileges that are mine as High Priest. I will fast, I will wear a hair shirt. They will call me a saint, although not in my hearing.

The Prophetic Voice has not broken its long silence, but, when I walk past the outer gates, I sometimes think that I can hear a terrible screaming