What is the moral insight of the story of "The Three Hermits"?

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Tolstoy's charming allegorical fable dwells on the contrast between the conventional and doctrinal rituals of the hierarchical Christian Church and the simple, instinctive prayer through which the spiritual life of a trio of reclusive peasants is made manifest.

A bishop of the Russian Orthodox church, the representative of the former...

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Tolstoy's charming allegorical fable dwells on the contrast between the conventional and doctrinal rituals of the hierarchical Christian Church and the simple, instinctive prayer through which the spiritual life of a trio of reclusive peasants is made manifest.

A bishop of the Russian Orthodox church, the representative of the former view, while enroute to a monastery by sea, learns of this trio of holy peasants from his traveling companions. His curiosity aroused, he spares no expense to make a detour to the small island that is their home.

Upon arrival, the bishop is moved by the obviously deep faith and devotion to good works of these aged peasants, but in response to their simple prayer, says, "That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you...the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him." Throughout the day, by means of laborious repetition, the bishop trains the trio in the words of "The Lord's Prayer."

After returning to the ship, the bishop continues on his journey. But he and his fellow passengers are soon amazed to see the three hermits gliding across the waves in swift pursuit of the ship. Distraught by having forgotten some of the words of the prayer they had just learned, they're in search of a final lesson. Finally grasping the presence of a supernatural spiritual power superior to his, the bishop tells them, "Your simple prayer will reach the Lord, men of God," and humbly kneels before them.

So, it is not until the conclusion of this fable, that one can understand that its moral is revealed in its epigraph, which is taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew.

"And in praying, use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him."

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The moral insight inspired by Tolstoy's tale "The Three Hermits" is suggested at the beginning of the story and dramatized at the ending of the story.Tolstoy is a masterful story teller and he allows readers a glimmer of the moral insight at the outset of the story through the tone of awe and wonder with which he opens the story, a tone developed in a vast space before a seemingly imperceptible and unreachable island haven, and through the hushed tones, the pointing, the silently rapt attention of the listeners and the piqued interest and curiosity of the Bishop.

When the Bishop is taken by special envoy to the distant island to meet the old men, he judges that, while they are holy men who are devoted to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, they are not able to "pray aright" and desires to teach them how to pray to the end that they will be more spiritual. The Bishop returns to the ship after teaching them the Lord's Prayer, where the whole crew is surprised to see the three hermits rushing after the ship by hurrying across the top of the water. When they overtake the ship, they lament that they have forgotten all that the Bishop had taught them, to which the bishops replies: "It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners."

Herein lies the moral. The Bishop represents the Orthodox Church of Russia and, by extension, all Christian Churches. He has with love and generosity taught them the best of what Church doctrine has to give, which is how to pray the Lord's Prayer, only to find out that they in their own simplistic, untaught, unorthodox way have so wholly surpassed him in spiritual depth and greatness that they can walk on water, a feat only previously attributed to Christ. Tolstoy is teaching the moral that true spirituality comes from within and is not taught from without through the performance of empty ritual, no matter how good it is.

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