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A Glimpse of Heaven in the Midst of War

Fr. Scott A. Haynes.


In the Holy Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples that we enter the kingdom of heaven when we allow God’s forgiveness, patience, and mercy to shape our response to others. If we have a worldly spirit, we scoff at this. But, if we are called unto Christ, we will allow the Spirt of God to fill us. We will forsake unabashed self-interest, pleasure-seeking, money-making, and domination, and seek to be poor in spirit, meek, and pure of heart.

But where is this Kingdom of God? Where does it exist, you might ask? In Saint Luke’s Gospel, a group of Pharisees asks Jesus this very question. And they ask when is the kingdom of God coming? He responds,

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

To illustrate what the good Lord is saying, there is a story told by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that gives us a glimpse of a sudden experience of the kingdom of heaven — in Russia, in the midst of war, with Stalin ruling from the Kremlin, and Hitler’s armies pushing eastward. In 1944, Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were in the huge crowd which witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German prisoners of war being marched across Red Square. Yevtushenko recalls in his autobiography [1]:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear. At last, we saw it. The [Nazi] generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors. “They smell of perfume,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The [Russian] soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
All at once something happened to them. They saw [ordinary] German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood- stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches. Then I saw an elderly [Russian] woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her which made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from Inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. [It was all she had.] She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from everyside women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The [German] soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

This is the sort of story most history books pass over — miraculous moments when enmity is replaced by mercy, compassion opens the way to actions of healing and forgiveness, and plain poverty becomes poverty of spirit. The gesture of a single old woman broke through what Saint Paul describes as

“the dividing wall of enmity.” (Eph 2:14)

Her eyes had been opened to see suffering German boys rather than murderous Nazi soldiers. Her response was to give away what little she had, a carefully saved piece of black bread. Afterward was she surprised by what she did, and the flood of gifts others had made in the wake of her small gesture of love? It was a moment when the kingdom of heaven flooded across [Communist] Red Square.

As we contemplate the life of Christ’s Beatitudes, we see that those whose treasure God as their greatest treasure, are already within the borders of the kingdom of heaven. The great mystic Saint Catherine of Siena said:

“All the way to heaven is heaven, because [Jesus] said, ‘I am the way.'”

It is similar to the medieval proverb of pilgrims walking to holy places:

“If you do not travel with the Lord whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”

It is impossible to miss the point. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever one person forgives another in the name of Jesus Christ, and not superficially, but “from the heart.” The kingdom of heaven is wherever mercy rules rather than vengeance—and for those who choose to let the love of Christ rule their hearts, minds and wills—we find the life of those who are blessed indeed.

Notes


[1] Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963).

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