Let Love Enter

Mary Jo Loebig, O.C.D.

It was such a strange title for a story. Quite honestly, I walked around for days wondering what it meant, only to wonder later why this was a problem. As I persevered to the end, I saw laid before me a beautiful and complete plan of life for all of us. That Whereby We Live* was the title, and Tolstoy, the author.

The setting was Russia, among God’s struggling people, simple and good people, eking out a livelihood. Simon was a cobbler, who lived with his wife, Matrena. So great was their poverty, that they took turns wearing the one ragged sheepskin coat between them.

Simon Passed Him By

Early one morning, Simon set out for the village to collect payment for his work. With the proceeds, he planned to buy a new coat. In fact, he dreamed of the new coat. However, he soon found out that no one was able to pay him. Others, too, were poor and struggling. As Simon took measures to return home in the dwindling light of dusk, he passed by a roadside chapel and saw huddled in the corner a strange figure, scantily clad and apparently trying to be shield himself from the cold wind. At first, Simon passed him by, but then, pricked by his own conscience, Simon returned. The young man opened his eyes wide and fixed them on Simon’s face. Later, whenever Simon recalled this glance, his heart was filled with joy. Simon took off his own caftan and placed it around the stranger’s shoulders. Simon then asked the young man where he came from. The young man simply answered, “I cannot tell you.” This was only the beginning of wondering who this person was.

The Story Unfolds

As the story unfolds, we learn that Simon took the young man home and taught him the art of being a cobbler. Eventually, Simon and Matrena learned that the man’s name was Michael. Michael was a peaceful and quiet man, a man of few words, also quite shy. Usually, his head was lowered and his eyes, downcast. During the three years or so that Michael stayed with Simon and Matrena, he did lift his head three times and smiled. As to disclosing his identity, he simply stated: “I am being punished.” However, with the third smile, both Simon and Matrena saw a soft light emanating from Michael.

With that, Michael finally told Simon and Matrena who he was. He was God’s angel. He had been sent to bring a soul back to God. The soul was that of a mother who had just given birth to twins. Michael found it impossible within himself to take the mother from her newborn twins. He felt they needed a mother. Michael retuned to God and explained. Although God listened, Michael was directed to return to earth, again. On the way, he lost his wings in the wind and fell to the ground. God told him that his task now was to learn three “words” (or lessons) of God and to learn them as a human being. Gradually, Michael learned what these three “words” were, and whenever he did, he looked up and smiled.

With great artistry, Tolstoy has Michael describe and explain the three “words”. What follows here are the three “words” edited and expanded upon by the current writer. The First Lesson

The first lesson that Michael was to learn was that there is love inside all of us. While the chief commandment of the Gospel is to go out to the other in love, Lesson I is the flip side of this commandment. As human beings we are meant to receive and accept love. We cannot live without it. It is “that whereby” we live. Actually, life wants to give us this love. Michael explained to Simon and Matrena: “When I was a human being, my life was preserved, not by taking thought for myself, but by the love that dwelt in a passer-by.” Michael felt that we live by the love that dwells in all humankind.

We Do Not Always Know

Michael went on to explain Lesson II. To put it simply: We do not always know what is good for us. Usually, we find this out in looking back.

The third lesson we are to learn is that we are all in this life together. Human beings were never meant to live apart from one another or to dwell alone. We are to live in unity. Michael goes on to say, in effect, that God reveals to us only what is needful to both us and to those with whom we live, at the same time.

It is now Spring. All too soon it will be summer. The snows are over and gone. The flowers have appeared in the land. I have been praying with this story since Christmas. Gradually and quietly, the story has revealed its message. I now better understand its title. Love received is “that whereby we all live.” In praying over such a story as this, there is usually an insight that emerges from the deep that was not there at the beginning. It occurs to me that before we pray for what we think we need, it is probably better to first ask God to reveal these needs to us as they are seen by God. After such a prayer, we would then be called to believe that God will indeed take care of these needs, and possibly take care of them in a manner we could never have imagined.

* For a complete rendition of this story, see Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man (Dutton: New York, 1969), pp. 84.