Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Men Live By

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. –St John

In Tolstoy’s short story, What Men Live By, we meet the angel Michael who has recently disobeyed God in not taking the soul of a young mother with infant twins. Having no other relatives, she had begged Michael to stay his hand, at least until her daughters could make it on their own. He agreed. God didn’t. Shortly afterwards, God takes the mother’s soul and Michael’s wings, telling him that he will not get them back until he learns the answers to three questions:

What dwells in man? What is not given to man? What do men live by?

Our first encounter with the mortal Michael is outside a shrine, where he is sitting, naked and freezing, and wondering how he was going to go about learning the answers to God’s questions. A shoemaker named Simon sees him but, as he has just returned from an unsuccessful attempt at collecting a debt owed him, he is in no mood to help a stranger. After he walks past the naked, shivering man, however, his heart is filled with pity. He then goes back, gives the man his only coat, and takes him home.

Michael would later explain that when he first saw Simon all that he could see in his face was death, as he only cared for how he was going to get bread and clothing. But when he returned, “he was alive, and I recognized in him the presence of God.”

At first, Simon’s wife Matryona is livid with her husband; so much so that Michael later notes that she was covered with the stench of death. But as she was hurling bitter accusations and condemnations at her husband, Simon turned and asked her, “Have you no love of God?” and her heart was filled with compassion for Michael. They invite him to live with them, giving him the very last of their food, without any knowledge that he was a fallen angel.

Lesson Number One: Love dwells in the heart of man.

As an apprentice shoemaker, Michael’s skills became so renown that people were now beating down Simon’s door and asking him to make their shoes. One day a rich man comes bearing fine leather from Germany and explains that he wants his shoes to fit just so. They agree to the price and Michael sets about to make the man’s shoes. When Simon comes to inspect the work, however, he sees that Michael has made a pair of slippers. While anxiously explaining to his apprentice that this could ruin their business, a lady walks in, tells Simon that the man has died, and that she needs slippers for his burial. Michael walks over and hands her the soft slippers he had been making. He had seen the angel of death standing behind the man when he had come to ask Simon to make him a pair of shoes.

Lesson Number Two: No one knows when his time on earth is going to come to an end. When the evening comes, no man knows “whether he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse.”

After six years of working with Simon, a woman walks in with the twins of the mother whose soul Michael had refused to take. She had adopted them and reared the girls as her own. She had come to ask Simon to make them each a pair of shoes.

Lesson Number Three: It is not given to man to know his own needs. “All men live not by care for themselves but by love….God does not wish men to live apart, and therefore he does not reveal to them what each needs for himself, but he wishes them to live united, and therefore reveals to each of them what is necessary for all.”

Michael survived, not because he was able to fend for himself, but “because love was present in a passer-by.”

The orphaned twins were cared for because of the love of a stranger.

Therefore, we do not truly live by the thought and effort we spend on meeting our own needs, “but because love exists in man.”

Tolstoy via Michael: “I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live. He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love." Michael then sang praise to God, as wings appeared on his back and he returned to heaven.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2014 

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