“Sharing,” Swamiji writes, “is the doorway through which the soul escapes the prison of self-preoccupation. It is one of the clearest paths to God.”
Leo Tolstoy tells a story of two old men, lifelong friends from a small village in central Russia. Many years before, they had made a vow to each other, and before God, to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Efim is tall, stalwart, and prosperous; he is also conscientious, free of vices, and carefully observant of the forms of his faith. Scrupulously honest and morally punctilious, his practical nature makes him question the wisdom of leaving daily responsibilities in order to go on a spiritual quest. His worries follow him throughout his pilgrimage: whether his son is properly managing the family’s home affairs; whether his money will last the journey, will run out, or even be stolen.
Elisha is small and wizened, with a shiny bald head and a cheerful disposition. He and his family live simply on his earnings as a beekeeper; they never have much, but always enough. Elisha does have a few vices (taking snuff is one), but is unfailingly kind and generous, and is on fire to make the pilgrimage. Efim’s reasonable concerns he overrides with a boundless optimism and faith that God will provide, not only for their travels but also for the families left behind.
Many weeks and hundreds of miles through the steppes the two old men walk. At first they are honored as pilgrims, given food and shelter, and provisions for the road ahead. All goes well until, deep inside Little Russia, they come into a district where the harvest has failed. The people have nothing to offer, can barely survive themselves. Efim soldiers on, but Elisha struggles to keep up with his friend’s vigorous pace. Coming to a small, impoverished village, Elisha stops to rest his weary old body, promising to catch up with Efim at the next village.
The hut Elisha approaches is crumbling on the outside, part of the thatch blown away. Outside the door lies a ragged man, gaunt and comatose. From inside Elisha hears a moan of pain. Entering the hut he beholds a scene of desolation, children weakly crying for bread, a grandmother slumped against a wall, too weak even to walk the short distance to the village well for water, the mother unconscious, lying in her own filth. Famine and disease have brought the family to helplessness and despair.
Elisha unhesitatingly opens his pack, cuts a slice of bread for each one, then goes for water. He sets to work, cleaning and repairing the hut. At a village shop he buys millet, salt, flour, and oil; at the hut again, he finds an axe, chops kindling, makes a fire, boils soup in a vessel borrowed from a neighbor, and gives the family their first meal in many days.
Day follows day. Gradually, under Elisha’s care, the people regain health and strength. Into his mind comes the question, in helping these people, am I failing my vow? At the same time he sees clearly that much more is needed to save the family — to buy back their cornfield, provisions enough to last until harvest, a horse for the plowing, a scythe for the mowing, a cart for the hay, a cow for the children’s milk. “I must do all these things,” Elisha promises himself, “or else while I go to seek the Lord beyond the sea, I may lose Him in myself.” By the time the family no longer needs his help, Elisha’s money is all but exhausted. With cheerful acceptance that his pilgrimage is over, Elisha slips away from the family while they sleep, and sets out on the long walk home.
Efim meanwhile continues his arduous journey, across Little Russia, then by boat across the sea from Odessa to Constantinople, finally to Jaffa, and again on foot to the Holy Land. Once in Jerusalem, he goes to all the sacred shrines, makes the appropriate offerings, gathers holy water from the Jordan, holy earth, candles lit at the sacred flame. For all the correctness of his worship, somehow at each shrine a teeming crowd of pilgrims blocks his way to the altar. Only from far in the rear is he able to make his offerings. At three of the shrines, to his amazement, he sees his friend Elisha (so long ago left behind) in front of the crowd, right before the altar itself — standing with arms outstretched, eyes uplifted as to something wonderful seen overhead, his bald head shining in the light of the sacred flame.
On his return journey, Efim stops at the little hut in the village where the two friends were parted. He sees now not the dilapidated ruin of the previous year, but prosperity and health; a plenteous harvest; a family happy and at peace, and profoundly grateful to the nameless pilgrim who served them, then vanished in the quiet of night. “We were dying in despair,” said one, “inveighing against God and man. But he has set us on our feet again; and through him we learned to know God, and to believe that there is good in man. May the Lord bless him! We used to live like animals; he has made human beings of us.” Now Efim understands how Elisha, left behind at the village, nonetheless reached Jerusalem ahead of him. “God may or may not have accepted my pilgrimage,” he murmurs to himself, “but He has certainly accepted Elisha’s.”
And when Efim again meets up with Elisha, there at his apiary in their home village, he sees him clad in his threadbare grey coat, without face-net or gloves, standing under the birch trees looking upwards, his arms stretched out and his bald head shining, just as he stood at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; above Elisha the sunlight shines through the birches just as the sacred flame shone in the holy place; the golden bees fly around his head like a halo, and do not sting him.
When Efim tries to speak of what happened in the village in Little Russia, Elisha, his eyes twinkling joyfully, will only say, “God’s business, neighbor, God’s business,” then invites Efim to sample the new honey.
May we all be about God’s business, humbly, simply, giving of ourselves to the task that lies before us, taking no credit, doing everything in God’s service.
In divine friendship,