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

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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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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