Paths

Leo Tolstoy tells the story of Efim and Elisha, friends of years and friends of tears, who were nearing the end of their lives. Long ago they had made a pact to accomplish one last task on their bucket list before they died. And, as old men often do, their thoughts had turned toward spiritual matters. In their day, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the capstone for many devout Russians. So it was they said good-by to their families and gathered their things to set out on the long road ahead. But, as all stories and life journeys do, this one soon presented them with a crisis.

After several days they came upon a small hut where it appeared no one lived; it looked at first glance to have been abandoned recently. But upon closer observation they found that plague and starvation had invaded the tiny homestead and that a father, mother, and two children along with an old grandmother lay near death. Efim was reluctant to stop because it seemed obvious they would die anyway, but Elisha decided to tarry to do what he could for them and said he would catch up later. That proved to be a life-changing decision, the place where the story and the two men’s last journey diverged.

Over the next days, Elisha succeeded in helping the family to slowly recover, first with bread from his own provisions, then he purchased more in the village when his supply ran out. Each day he drew them water from the well until their strength returned.  But when it came time to leave and catch up with Efim the little ones clung to his legs and cried pitifully that they had no horse to work the field and no cow for milk. Having empathy for them one thing led to another and by the time they were restored, Elisha had expended almost all of his life savings.

This time as he prepared to leave, Elisha realized his pilgrimage was no longer feasible. Almost out of money and having lost so much time, he could only regretfully turn back toward home, his spiritual quest ended. But as he walked away, the little family came out to bless him as he set out—in the opposite direction.   

Meanwhile, Efim went on and though often looking back for his friend he completed his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The highlight of the trip was worshipping at the midnight mass at the Sepulcher of Christ in the Church of the Resurrection. But here was where the oddest thing happened. In the midst of a large, pressing crowd, anxious to get close to the front where Jesus had lain, he was stunned to see the back and the distinctive bald head of his friend, Elisha, arms outstretched like a priest at the altar before the sepulcher. But by the time he wove his way forward, Elisha had disappeared into the crowd—or so it seemed. Though he looked everywhere, he never found him among the pilgrims.

Still perplexed by what he had seen, yet another surprise awaited Efim on his journey back home.  As he reached the village where he and Elisha had parted a year earlier, he was stopped by a friendly family who asked him to come aside and share their food and a bed for the night. That evening they told him the story of the stranger who rescued their lives. They recounted that not only were they in good health through his care, but each recounted an even more important result:

Had he not come we should all have died in our sins. We were dying in despair, murmuring against God and man. But he 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 made human beings of us (emphasis added). [1]

It was then Efim saw that while realizing the long awaited goal of the pilgrimage to Christ’s grave, it was Elisha whose offering of himself in serving those in need that had been accepted by God. At the end, Tolstoy leaves the reader to ponder with Efim what God’s purpose is for man at the end of his life. For Tolstoy the answer is clear as he recounts through Efim: “He now understood that the best way to keep one’s vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others.”[2]

 To finish the race with others being the better for having encountered us, whether it is a great thing we do or not, that is the question to consider as we set out on the path that leads toward the end of the journey. We leave our legacies not on monuments but in the lives of others. That is all that will last.

[1] Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, Two Old Men, (McLean, VA: The Trinity Forum, 2002), 31.

[2] Ibid, 33.