The Three Hermits by Leo Tolstoy, 1886
The magic trick:
Writing a parable that both reinforces and pushes back against religious traditions
This story found me at an opportune time – just as my fiancée and I began a Bible study in preparation for marriage. “The Three Hermits” provided an interesting perspective on that study – seemingly reinforcing many of the same ideas while also pushing back against others.
In that way, it’s a brilliantly rich parable. The bishop recognizes godliness. But he’s also prideful, sure that his way of prayer is the only appropriate way to pray. His instinct to seek the hermits is accurate. But it’s clear he still has a lot to learn. As do we. And that’s quite a trick on Tolstoy’s part.
‘I have heard,’ he said, ‘that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.’
The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.
‘Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.’
The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:
‘We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.’
‘But how do you pray to God?’ asked the Bishop.
‘We pray in this way,’ replied the hermit. ‘Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.’
And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated:
‘Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!’
The Bishop smiled.
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