Until it collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Union, or Communist Russia, was one of the most evil societies in human history; in terms of the number of lives ruined, and the millions of people it killed or persecuted, it rivaled Nazi Germany. The Soviets had a vast network of concentration camps, which housed not only thieves, murderers, and other common criminals, but also millions of political prisoners and persons arrested for their religious beliefs. A prisoner in one of the camps in the cold, remote region of Siberia was a Jewish medical doctor, Boris Kornfeld. He was greatly influenced by a prisoner whose name is lost to human history, a simple Christian whose quiet, heroic faith was a source of inspiration and hope under hellish circumstances. Dr. Kornfeld became friends with this man, and from him learned the Our Father. One day the doctor was asked to treat a guard whose artery had been cut in a knife fight. Dr. Kornfeld considered letting him bleed to death, or suturing the artery in a way that would keep the guard alive for only a few days, and then fail—but then he remembered the line from the Our Father he had learned from his Christian friend: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The doctor forgave the guard, saved his life, and from then on began living according to a higher moral standard—even to the point of turning in a prisoner who had been stealing food from the others. This man vowed revenge.
A cancer patient named Aleks was brought in, and Dr. Kornfeld saw in his eyes that he was spiritually empty and miserable—so the doctor told him about his Christian friend, about how he had learned to pray the Our Father, and about his own growing faith; Aleks listened very closely. That night the prisoner who had threatened vengeance murdered Dr. Kornfeld in his sleep—but the doctor’s influence lived on. Aleks honored his memory, and began his own journey of faith; he became a Christian, and when released from prison, began writing not only about his experiences as a prisoner, but also about the history of the Soviet Union and the terrible evils it had perpetrated. This man was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a great modern prophet and one of the most important authors and influential voices of conscience in all human history. Because he spoke the truth in an uncompromising and politically incorrect way, Solzhenitsyn was a key figure in the eventual collapse of the Evil Empire known as the Soviet Union, and the subsequent liberation of millions of people. This would not have happened, however, were it not for the example of Dr. Boris Kornfeld, and this heroic Jewish doctor would not have fulfilled his role in God’s plan were it not for the simple, quiet witness of an unknown Christian prisoner (William J. Bausch, An Anthology of Saints, p. 20). At some point in our lives, each one of us is given the opportunity to influence others in a profound and lasting way—and using this opportunity lets us play our part in building up the Kingdom of God.
Because of original sin, it’s impossible to avoid some amount of suffering in life—but through the grace of God, this suffering can serve a higher purpose. Even during a time of national disaster, the Lord promised through the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34) that He would make a new covenant with His people, one that would be written on their hearts—that is, something they would truly absorb and live up to. Jesus is the fulfillment of this New Covenant, and as the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) tells us, “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.” However, this was not an easy mission for Him; in the Gospel of John (12:20-33) Our Lord refers to Himself as the grain of wheat that must fall to the earth and die, so as to bring forth a rich harvest. Jesus also states that those who wish to follow Him into eternal glory must first follow Him along the road of self-surrender and self-sacrifice.
There are many legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. One of them says that whenever the knights returned from battle, if they did not bear on their bodies some injury, wound, or other mark of having fought bravely, the king would send them back out to fight with the command, “Go, get your scar!” (Walter B. Knight, Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 586). In a sense, Jesus says this same thing to us—but not by sending us out alone into the world; He has traveled the path of spiritual warfare and self-sacrifice ahead of us, and He bids us to come and follow Him, and in doing so, He promises us we will have the opportunity to make a real difference in the life of someone else.
Maybe the scar we will bear is having family members laughing at us or considering us strange because we take our Catholic faith seriously. Perhaps the scar will involve people disliking or criticizing us because we refuse to compromise our religious beliefs. Maybe our scar will involve misunderstanding, suspicion, or outright rejection by others because we place God’s will first in our lives. Perhaps we’ll bear the scar of loneliness or isolation because our moral values make other people—including loved ones—feel uncomfortable. It’s even possible our scar will be one of discouragement because our best efforts and our example don’t seem to be making any difference. However, we cannot fully know in this life how our efforts to remain faithful to Jesus are influencing someone else. Our willingness to make little sacrifices in the Name of Christ may inspire a fellow believer to remain faithful to Jesus, or a non-believer to consider the truth of the Gospel; our quiet commitment to our Catholic faith may encourage someone else to seek God’s guidance in an important decision, or to stand firm in a difficult moral situation; our simple Christian witness may make the difference in a loved one’s decision to answer God’s call, or even set into motion a chain reaction of grace affecting the lives of millions—as was the case with the unknown Christian believer who inspired Dr. Boris Kornfeld, whose sacrificial death in turn inspired one of the most important and influential authors of the 20th century.
Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat— but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Jesus offers all of us opportunities to let this truth unfold in our own lives—and the more we’re willing to do this, in simple, everyday ways, the more we will one day be ready to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.