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