The Three Hermits

Many people ask me how to bless “correctly”. I do not know the reply and we very much doubt that there exists a “correct” way of blessing. Religions have strayed in their search for correct forms, be these in the fields of liturgy, clothing, dietary recommendations, in a given form of catechism or prayer or of reciting mantras, you name it. They have too often forgotten that the profound desire to do good and to love is the deepest expression of an authentic spirituality. This comes out beautifully in this tale which we have summarized from the remarkable story-teller that Tolstoy was.

The Three Hermits
An old legend from the Volga region.

A bishop was travelling on the sea in the direction of the Solovetsk monastery. There were numerous pilgrims on the boat and a fisherman from the region spoke to the bishop of three hermits who lived on a small island close to where the boat would be sailing. They spent all their time praying.

The bishop expressed the desire to meet them and asked the captain if the boat could stop long enough for him to become acquainted with the three hermits. At that time in Russia, the request of a bishop was practically an order, so a rowing boat was lowered with two sailors who rowed him to the island. The hermits were awaiting him on the shore.

They evidently were extremely simple and uneducated. The eldest was certainly well beyond a hundred with the eyes of a child in a face radiant with light.

The bishop explained that as the shepherd in charge of his flock – the inhabitants of his diocese – he had come to see what he could teach them.

He asked them how they prayed. They explained that they prayed the same prayer the whole day long: “You are three, we are three, have mercy upon us”. The bishop told them that they evidently understood something about the Trinity but that was not the correct manner to pray. He then set about to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.

He spent the whole day teaching them. These extremely unsophisticated and illiterate men stumbled over the words, mixed them up, and the bishop needed to repeat a word dozens of times before they memorized it. Finally, by the end of the day, the three hermits could repeat the entire prayer.

Night was descending and the moon rising when the bishop took leave from his parishioners. As he returned to the boat, he could hear the voice of the hermits in the distance repeating the Lord’s Prayer.

The bishop stood a long time at the back of the boat, looking in the direction of the island which finally disappeared on the horizon. As he could not sleep, he stayed on the bridge close to the helmsman.

The night was splendid. At one moment, he noticed a light that seemed to be coming in the direction of the boat. Suddenly, he recognized the three hermits who were sliding on the water as if they were walking on solid ground. He nudged the helmsman who in turn recognized the three hermits. In his fright, he let go of the helm and shouted out loud, awaking the numerous pilgrims who were travelling on the boat and who gathered at the helm.

The three men caught up with the boat, sliding on the water without even moving their feet. Lifting their heads towards the stunned bishop, they cried out: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of the Most High. We can no longer repeat it. Teach us again.”

The bishop crossed himself and, bending towards them, said:  “Your prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us, poor sinners”.

The bishop bowed deeply in front of the three elderly men who turned around to go back to their island. And a light shone till sunrise at the spot where the people on the boat lost sight of them. (Published in 1886)

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