There was an old man on the island of Crete who was beloved by all. He ministered to the poor, he loved his children and his grandchildren, and he never missed Mass once. People would call on him to settle their disputes, rather than the magistrates, because they knew he would always come up with a just and generous compromise that would make everyone happy. They would come to him for advice, or simply to tell him of their troubles, because he was always ready with a sympathetic ear and some gentle wisdom.
But their love for him was exceeded only by his love for them. To him, every neighbor was a brother or sister, for they all lived on his beloved Crete. In his youth he had fought for Crete, and now that he was old every stone, every tree was precious to him.
When the old man lay dying, all the island mourned for him, but he blessed them and said “Do not weep for me, for I am going to my Lord, but lay me in my beloved Crete.” And, taking a fistful of the soil of his island in his hand, he died.
He immediately found himself at the Gates of Heaven, with St. Peter waiting to welcome him with a smile, saying “come, good and faithful servant, and take your reward.” The old man started to go forward, but as he was about to pass the gates he found he couldn’t move. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pass the gates.
“Well, that’s odd,” said Peter. “Did you bring anything with you?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “I have the soil of my beloved Crete in my hand.”
“Oh, I’m afraid we don’t allow you to bring anything in,” said Peter. “You’ll have to leave it behind.”
“WHAT?” cried the old man. “I can’t do that! This is Crete! This is my home, my island, which I love!”
“I’m sorry,” said Peter. “But those are the rules: no baggage or souvenirs of any kind. Please dispose of it in the receptacle provided.”
“Never!” said the old man. “I won’t leave my beloved Crete behind! Never! Heaven would not be Heaven to me if I couldn’t have Crete!”
And the old man sat down the steps to Heaven, folded his arms, and would not budge.
Peter sighed, and called it in. St. Paul came out and started yelling at the man, telling him he was an idiot for choosing Earthly affections over the glory of Heaven. This, oddly enough, didn’t accomplish much except to make the old man more obstinate. Then St. Thomas Aquinas came out to explain why and how the glories of Heaven outweigh any possible joys that the man could have had on Crete, but the old man had never had much education and barely understood a word of what he said.
Finally, St. Peter called the Blessed Mother and said “we have this old man who simply refuses to let go of his native soil, and if we don’t get him to before long, he’s going to lose his reward. Can you talk to him, because we are at our wit’s end over here!”
So, Mary came out and sat down next to the old man of Crete. He glanced at her, then returned to his haughty glaring into space.
“What’s that?” she asked, indicating the hand that held the soil.
“That is Crete,” he said stiffly. “It’s what I loved most in all the world, what inspired all my piety and good works, the one thing I can’t live without.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding in understanding. “That sounds wonderful. Can I see?”
He hesitated, then reluctantly opened his hand to show her. By this point, the soil had lost all its moisture and was little more than dust.
“That just looks like dirt to me,” she said. “Why don’t you let it go?”
The old man looked at her, then at the dust in his hand. Slowly, painfully, he turned his hand over and let the dust fall out.
Mary smiled, took him by the hand, and led him through the gates.
And the old man of Crete, as he finally gazed upon Heaven, stopped as though stricken.
“This is Crete!”