The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote novels that depicted the world in all its immense complexity and enormous scope. His masterpiece "War and Peace" covers a breathtaking breadth of psychological domains, from the passion of romantic love to the blind ambition of political intrigue to the contradictions and tragic ironies of military campaigns. It is remarkable, then, that in the latter part of his life Tolstoy underwent a psychological transformation that caused him to express his views on life within the context of Christianity. At the age of fifty he learned ancient Greek so that he could make his own translation of the Gospels. One of the ways he expressed his transformed vision was through a series of short stories written in the style of folk tales. I want to tell you one of them. It's called "Where Love Is, God Is."There was this old cobbler, Martin Avdeich, who lived in a small town in rural Russia. His shop was right on the street, so that he could see everyone pass by. He had known sorrow in his life, the death of his loving wife and of his children. He had come to lose hope and fall into despair. One day a holy man came by his shop and Martin unburdened himself to him, telling of his despair and hopelessness. The Monk told Martin that he must not judge God's ways and that his despair came from being self-absorbed, from living in a way that was centered on the pursuit of his own happiness.
Over time Martin began to read the Gospels and found great comfort in them. One night he was reading the Gospel according to Luke, the chapter in which the woman who was a sinner washed the feet of Christ, while the rich Pharisee, who was his host, gave the Lord no comfort. Martin thought, "That rich Pharisee is like me. He is so self-absorbed that he cannot give comfort even to the Lord himself when He is his guest."
Then Martin began to fall asleep and as he did he heard a voice say, "Martin, look out in the street for me tomorrow, for I shall come." Martin was not sure if he had really heard these words or if he had dreamed them. But next day he wondered if he would have a special visitor, if somehow the Lord would come to visit him. Martin wanted to be ready for him, to comfort him.
The next day, as Martin was stitching boots in his shop, he looked out his window, wondering if the Lord would somehow really visit him that day. As he was doing this, he saw an old man in torn clothing, who was leaning against a wall bracing himself against the bitter winter cold. Martin invited him in and offered him a cup of the tea that he had been brewing. The old man was touched by the warmth of the tea, and even more by the human warmth that the caring act communicated. Martin poured him many cups of tea and they spoke together until the man grew warm in both body and spirit. As the old man left, Martin pressed his hand warmly, inviting him to visit again.
Later that day, as Martin was again musing on his strange dream of the night before, he saw a woman, dressed only in shabby summer clothing, carrying a baby. Like the old man, she too was bracing herself against the bitter cold. Martin opened the door to his little shop and invited her in out of the cold. As Martin asked her about herself, she explained that she had not eaten all day and that she and her baby are hungry. Martin went to his stove and ladled out cabbage soup for her and gave her a basket of hearty bread.
While she ate, he comforted her baby, playing a game with him until he laughed gleefully. Later the two departed, heartened by the food and warmth that Martin had given them.
As the afternoon light began to fade, Martin saw an old woman carrying a bundle of wood on her back and a basket of apples. Then a boy ran by and snatched an apple from the basket. Before he could get away, the old woman grabbed his arm and would not let it go. She threatened to bring the child to the police. Martin ran out of his shop and made peace between them, telling the woman that we are all sinners and that it is not for us to judge others and telling the boy that he saw the theft. Martin took an apple from the basket and gave it to the boy, telling the old woman that he will pay her for it. The boy then offered to help the woman carry the bundle of heavy logs that she had been carrying. Martin noticed that woman did not ask him for payment for the apple, and the old woman and the boy walked down the street together, talking with animation.
When it grew dark, Martin lit his lamp and finished stitching the boots that he had been working on. Then he ate a simple meal of porridge and sat looking at the gleam of the lantern light. He thought of the dream of the night before. How he had heard the words of the Lord telling him that he would visit him that day. Martin fell into a kind of semi-sleep and heard the words, "Martin, don't you know me?" And Martin said, "Who is it?" He looked up and he saw the old man who he had comforted with warmth and tea, who said "It is I," and then disappeared. Then he saw the mother and her child who he had comforted with food and play and she said, "It is I," and disappeared. Then he saw the old woman and the boy and the old woman said, "It is I," and they too vanished.
Martin smiled and felt a warm feeling inside. He opened the Gospels and the first thing he read was: "I was hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in. Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." And Martin understood that his dream had come true, and that the Savior had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed Him.
Thus Leo Tolstoy told the story.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is professor of psychology at Kutztown University and has a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.