Silver Keys, Mean Moms and Compassion in the Workplace

…and from beneath his robe he drew two keys; the one was made of gold, the other of silver; first with the white, then with the yellow key, he plied the gate as so to satisfy me.     

 “Whenever one of these keys fails, not turning appropriately in the lock,” he said to us, “This gate of entry does not open…”

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

                 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Puragatorio, Canto 9:115 – 126

            I first began exploring Dante’s The Divine Comedy fifteen years ago.  It’s an imaginary journey through the afterlife, drawing on the scientific and religious knowledge current in 1300 AD, formed by and filled with Dante’s extraordinary imagination.  Despite being written long ago, I’ve found it contains fascinating spiritual and psychological insights.  I’m currently in a year-long Dante study group meeting on Zoom every Monday afternoon.  I want to share with you a brief passage we read recently.

            Dante is being led through different stages of the afterlife by his guide, Virgil. At this point he has passed through the underworld (Inferno) and is at the foot of Mount Purgatory. If we want to get to paradise, we need to make this trek — a final chance to overcome our personal shortcomings.  

            Dante and Virgil come to the entry at the base of the mountain. They meet an angel who guards the gate, possessing two keys given by St. Peter.

            As seen in the passage above, the angel pulls them out from his robe: one is gold and one silver.  He says the gold one is “more precious.”  The silver key is not as valuable, but you can’t open the gate without it, and using it takes “much art and skill.”  Scholars have long believed the gold key represents the pure gift of divine love; the silver symbolizes how that love is actually applied in the real world.

            I love this distinction.  Here’s why.

            Last week my posting was “Uncover the Love,” which focused on a personal experience I had in a sweat lodge.  I saw how love is always present in our lives, even if we don’t recognize it.  I linked that to the Buddhist concept of “metta” (compassion) and the Christian concept of “agape.”  In light of the Dante passage, these are represented by the “gold key” — love, grace, and compassion in their purest form. 

            It’s one thing to receive this gift. But how do we apply it in the complex situations we face in everyday life, including family and work? For that we need the silver key: the art and skill of applying love and grace in the here and now.

            Reflecting on this theme, I was reminded of a Mother’s Day sermon about being a “mean mom” I once heard from my long-time friend, LuAnn Miller. I contacted LuAnn this week to help me remember what she said that day.  She replied with a summary:

            “Thanks for checking! Sometimes I needed to be the “mean mom” and set boundaries. Nobody gets to do everything or get everything they want! Possible short-term scowls usually lead to long term steps to being a responsible, kind, loving citizen of the world.

            She has always loved her boys. But sometimes loving them meant not letting them do what they wanted. Compared to lenient moms they knew, she was “mean.” She gladly accepted the label, knowing she was doing what was best in the long run.

            This is an example of using the “silver key.”  You love your kids, and you don’t want to disappoint them. But the art and skill of being a loving parent includes setting boundaries and expectations kids may not appreciate at the time.  Your love for them is good as gold, but to make it real you need to be a silversmith.

            I also thought of a story I heard at a business and spirituality conference.  The speaker affirmed that many of us want to be compassionate, but that’s not always easy in the workplace. 

            There was a woman in his company who loved to make conversation. The problem was that she shared a work room with six others. Her constant talking made it hard for them to get their work done, and they asked him to do something.

            He noticed another company had an opening for a front office receptionist.  He encouraged his employee to apply for it and he put in a good word on her behalf. She got the job.  Two months later, he visited that office and she greeted him. She thanked him for helping her get a job she loved. And her former coworkers were relieved they could work in peace.

            The right thing to do was not to simply feel compassion for everyone involved, but to find a solution to the problem. That took “art and skill.”  

            My friend LuAnn added a bit more about what she had said: “The other part of my talk, as I recall, was the importance of having other adult people in our kids’ lives. Teacher, neighbor, auntie or uncle, grandparent, LOG (Love Of God, our youth program) …I believe each person has the opportunity to be “that person” to make a small difference for someone. With a smile, word of encouragement or a loving reminder of a boundary.” 

            Love, grace and compassion are divine gifts, I believe. But it takes “much art and skill” to apply them in life.  We benefit from any “silversmiths” we may know:  teachers, neighbors, friends, and family when we are raising kids, and wise colleagues when the challenge is at work. 

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

Top image: William Blake, Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto 9, c 1827

Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Bodelian Library, Oxford, c. 1350
Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Franz von Bayros, Vienna, 1921
The gold/yellow and silver/white “keys” on the Papal flag. In Dante’s time, the gold represented the “supernatural powers to administer God’s grace” while the silver represented the church’s power in political affairs, as well as issues like excommunicaiton.


  1. Marilyn Gross says:

    I really like this one, Steve. Thank you!


  2. elsakaye says:

    Why, Steve, you just gave me “a key” to the meaning of the silver chain in a dream from 2009 – Dove with a Silver Chain. I was just thinking about that dream several weeks ago and wondered about why the chain was silver. Application of love, grace and compassion has been a theme that is woven though out my life. It all began from listening to a Sunday school teacher when I was 4 or 5 years old. Now I have to go back and look over my book, Walking in the Moonlight and think more about the pictures I included from Gustave Dore, in Dante’s The Vision of Hell. Keep writing, Steve, your thoughts resonate with me.


    1. That’s great, Elsa. Dante’s Divine Comedy must be the most archetype-rich work in Western literature. So may evocative images, drawn from the past but recast through Dante’s imagination…


  3. pcorrigan22yahoocom says:

    Love this, Steve. Thank you! I will now think of my Mom was a gifted “silversmith.” She ran a tight ship with clear rules and boundaries, and never said a mean word to any of us. We adored her. She could get rightfully angry, but was never cold, harsh, or shaming. I once eavesdropped on a conversation she was having with a neighbor who asked her how she raised such “good” kids. She said something like, ” I hug ’em a lot, and I have strict rules so I can keep liking them.” I was about 10, but I never forgot that.


  4. Peggy Ciolino says:

    Thank-you for another thought-provoking piece!


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