Leo Tolstoy, in the last decades of his life, went through a time of intense introspection that led to his mature spiritual vision: a simple life lived close to nature; love and service to mankind; kindness and forgiveness in the face of cruelty and injustice—attitudes that profoundly influenced the spiritual life of Mahatma Gandhi. Out of Tolstoy’s spiritual awakening came a number of moral tales, among them the story of three hermits, which Yoganandaji honors by including in Autobiography of a Yogi, and, a few years earlier, a retelling of a legendary story about an angel named Michael.
Michael lives close to God and joys in serving his Lord. All goes well until the day Michael is sent to earth to bring back the soul of a woman recently widowed and now dying in childbirth. Though the angel sets out full of divine purpose, when he enters the woman’s humble dwelling, his heart is wrenched by what he sees: twin baby girls, desperate for milk, groping blindly toward the exhausted form of their mother. How can he take her soul away when her babies need her most? And so, leaving the little ones suckling their mother, Michael returns to the Lord to explain his disobedience. The Lord, sternly now, sends Michael back to earth to complete his mission. Obediently this time, Michael sends the woman’s soul winging to God. But as her soul soars free, her body falls across the tiny leg of one of the twins, so crushing it that the child will always be lame. The angel Michael, though he has carried out the Lord’s behest, must remain on earth as a man, and must continue as a man until he has understood three mysteries: What dwells in man?; What is not given to man?; and What do men live by?
Naked and shivering with cold, Michael shelters himself from the biting wind by a wayside chapel. A man approaches. His face is contorted with worry—his expression frightening to Michael, so recently descended from a realm of harmony and joy. The approaching man is a shoemaker, carrying a pair of felt boots he is to repair. His worried expression, his muttering to himself, his shambling walk, all come from anxiety over having failed to buy a sheepskin with which to make a winter coat to share with his wife, and from fear of her recriminations.
Just as Michael is shocked by the shoemaker’s grimaces, so is the shoemaker fearful of this naked stranger: fearful of being robbed, fearful of involving himself in another’s trouble when he feels overwhelmed by his own. Eyes averted, the shoemaker hurries on past. But something about the stranger has touched his good heart and awakened his conscience. Turning back to help as he can, he greets the stranger and offers his aid. Michael, eyes downcast, says only his name—and that he has sinned. The shoemaker expands with sympathy: Here is suffering greater than his own. Taking off the caftan he is wearing, he helps Michael into it—for this stranger seems unable even to dress himself. Kneeling at Michael’s feet, the shoemaker helps him into the felt boots. To Michael’s inner sight, when the shoemaker turns back to help, when he is clothing his naked body and offering him shelter, this Russian peasant who in his selfish fear seemed dark, ugly, and twisted now shines with warm kindness. In this man who has risen out of his own fear to render aid to another, Michael sees God’s living presence.
The two come in time to the shoemaker’s hut. Here Michael sees a face even more hideous than his first sight of the shoemaker. It is the shoemaker’s wife—furious, as he had feared, that he, her husband, has come home empty-handed, reeking of vodka, and with a strange man to feed from a larder with not even a crust of bread. But when she looks more closely at the stranger, something about him touches a deep place in her heart. Sending her children to borrow bread from a neighbor, she busies herself preparing kvas. As she feeds the two men with food now imbued with the love of her heart, Michael is wonderstruck at the transformation: a face at first lined and distorted with worry and anger is now luminous with the light of the living God. Here then Michael sees the answer to the first mystery—What dwells in man?—for in this man and wife he has seen that what is in their hearts, hidden as may be beneath layers of poverty and pain and selfishness, is love.
The years pass. Michael has become part of this loving, welcoming family, and has become an expert shoemaker in service to his new master. The day comes when a woman comes for shoes for two little girls, twins, about six years old, one with a lame leg. These, he understands, are the same little ones whose mother he was sent to escort heavenward. The woman is a neighbor of the mother, the only one in the village at the time nursing a child of her own. Reluctantly she took in the tiny orphans. At first she thought to withhold her milk from the lame one, to let one die that the two remaining have enough. But the love in her heart would not allow her to abandon any child in her care. As if in blessing on her compassion, so much milk flowed that there was ample for three. And so it was that when her own child died in the second year she could still rejoice in the two little ones who were now her family. It had not been given to her to know what lay ahead, but because she listened to the love that was in her heart, she was given two children in place of the one she lost.
With the coming of this woman and the two little girls, Michael understands the last two mysteries: What is not given to man? and What do men live by? To the awestruck shoemaker and his wife, Michael now, finally, speaks openly of his journey, and all the while light fills the little hut. “I was kept alive when I was a man not by what I did for myself, but because there was love in a passerby and in his wife, and because they pitied and loved me. The orphans were kept alive not by what was done for them, but because there was love in the heart of a strange woman, and she pitied and loved them. And all men live not by what they do for themselves, but because there is love in men.” His voice growing stronger and stronger, the light emanating now blinding to the shoemaker and his wife, the angel Michael sings out, “He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, because God is love.” And in that moment, the little hut shakes, the ceiling opens up and a fiery column rises from earth to heaven. The angel Michael is returning home to God.
“Thus, Lord, we left You countless eons ago. Ours was a holy mission. You charged us to learn great lessons from life: to be fruitful in the gifts You had given us; to expand and multiply them.”
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing
Thank you Prakash, beautiful story!
A very heartwarming story with a powerful message of love and understanding. A ray of light to free us from the sadness and darkness that seems all too pervasive at present.
Thank you for sharing it with all of us.
Thank you Prakash for such an inspiring story. Who knew?
So wonderful how love turns every moment necessary and growth in any outcome.
Thank you Prakash, I have never heard this story, and it is a necessary tale for our times…
This story spoke to my heart. Recently I’ve been given a deeper understanding of this love, and everything related here resonated with what I’m learning. We all live and move and have our being in this God, and since God is love, in this love – most of us just aren’t aware or awake to it. I hope and pray that our spiritual eyes and ears will open to receive this truth. It’s end result will be peace, and harmony.
Thank you Prakash for such a great story! Loosely reminds of of a prayer that I partially remember – something like ” Lord grant me perseverance to stay until liberated”.
calmness and light,
This message could not have arrived at a better time. This has truly been a divine appointment meeting this story. Thank you🙏
Beautiful, thank you!
A beautiful story and perfect in these times where all we see is hatred brewing. A nice reminder that love always wins because God is LOVE and we are created in God’s mage✝️💜
I love this story and thank you for sharing. If I can be so bold and add to this story, to explain the second lesson Michael needed to learn. But I will write it as Tolstoy did, skipping some parts, so you can all get a sense of his mastery of the language, but also because I am unable to summarize as well. In my rendition, the second truth ,” learn what is not given to man” is shown to Michael after having lived with with Simon and his wife, Matrena, for several years during which, ” his fame spread till people said that no one sewed boots so neatly and strongly as Simon’s workman.” …. “one winter day, as Simon and Michael were working, a carriage on sledge-runners, with three horses and with bells, drove up to the hut.” …
“The gentleman stooped to enter the hut, and when he drew himself up again, his head nearly reached the ceiling and he seemed quite to fill his end of the room.”
“Simon rose, bowed and looked at the gentleman with astonishment. He had never seen any one like him. Simon himself was lean, Michael was thin, and Matrena was dry as a bone, but this man was like some other from another world: red-faced, burly, with a neck like a bull’s and looking altogether as if he were cast in iron.” …
The gentleman commands his servant to bring the leather, “Simon felt the leather and said, “It is good leather.””
“Good, indeed! Why, you fool, you’ve never seen such leather before in your life. It’s German, and it cost twenty rubles.”
Simon is frightened. He has never seen anything like it before.
And in Tolstoy’s masterful style the big man responds “Just so! Now you make it into boots for me?”
“Yes your Excellency, I can.”
Then the gentleman shouted at him: “You can, can you? Well, remember whom you are to make them for, and what the leather is. You must make me boots that will wear for a year, neither loosing shape not coming unseen. If you can do it, take the leather and cut it up; but if you can’t say so. I warn you now, if your boots come unsewn or lose shape within a year I will have you put in prison. If they don’t burst or lose shape for a year, I will pay you ten rubles for your work.” ….
Well, Michael agreed to do the work despite Simon’s understandable concern. Simon proceeds with measurements with continually chatter and commands from the big gentleman who at some point sees Michael sitting quietly in the corner.
“Whom have we there?” asked he.
“That is my workman. He will sew the boots”
“Mind,” said the gentleman to Michael, “remember to make them so that they will last a year.”
Simon also looked at Michael, and saw that Michael was not looking at the gentleman, but was gazing into the corner behind the gentleman, as if he saw someone there. Michael looked and looked, and suddenly he smiled, and his face grew brighter.”
“What are you grinning at, you fool?” thundered the gentleman. “You had better look to it that the boots are ready in time.”
“They will be ready in time,” said Michael.
“Mind it is so,” said the gentleman, and he put on his boots and his fur coat, wrapped the latter round him, and went to the door. But he forgot to stoop, and struck his head against the lintel.
He swore and rubbed his head. The he took his seat in the carriage and drove away.
When he had gone, Simon said: “There’s a figure of a man for you! You could not kill him with a mallet. He almost knocked out the lintel, but little harm it did him.”
And Matrena said: “Living as he does, how should he not grow strong? Death itself can’t touch such a rock as that.”
I will do a bit of snipping of the text here due to space but in summary Michael sews slippers not boots from the leather and Simon, as you can imagine, is mortified and confused.
“Hardly had he begun to rebuke Michael when “rat-tat” went the iron ring that hung at the door.”
“My mistress has sent me about the boots.”
“What about the boots.”
“Why, my master no longer needs them. He is dead.”….
…..”My mistress sent me here, saying: “Tell the bootmaker that the gentleman who ordered the boots of him and left the leather for them no longer needs the boots, but that he must quickly make soft slippers for the corpse. Wait till they are ready and bring them back with you.”…..
Michael gathered up the remnants of the leather; rolled them up, took the soft slipper he had made, slapped them together, wiped them down with his apron, and handed them and the roll of leather to the servant, who took them and said: “Good-bye, masters, and good day to you.”
Beautiful, Magda! Thank you dearly.
Thank you for reminding me this story