The Three Hermits

by Leo Tolstoy

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

"The Three Hermits" is an 1886 short story written by famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy about a bishop who encounters three peculiar hermits and discovers the true meaning of faith and spirituality.

The story opens with a bishop and several pilgrims sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsky Monastery to visit the shrines. The narrator explains that the weather is fair and that all the pilgrims are lying on deck, eating, or talking to each other. The bishop joins them on deck and overhears a conversation between a fisherman and a group of men. The fisherman tells the pilgrims and the bishop about a small, remote island where three humble hermits live "for the salvation of their souls."

One of the hermits is very old, possibly "more than a hundred," and has a hunched back, but he's always smiling, and "his face is as bright as an angel's from heaven." He's dressed in an old "priest's cassock." While taller and much stronger, the second hermit bears the same "kindly and cheerful" demeanor as the first hermit. He has a "broad beard" and a "tattered peasant coat." Lastly, the third hermit stands tall, boasting a knee-length white beard and a stern face "with overhanging eyebrows." He wears "nothing but a mat tied around his waist."

As the ship draws nearer to the island, the captain gives the bishop a telescope, and he spots the hermits "standing on the shore and holding each other by the hand." Captivated by their appearance and intrigued by the fisherman's account, the bishop develops a strong desire to meet these unique individuals and eagerly asks for permission to visit the island. To discourage him, the captain tells the bishop that he has heard rumors about the hermits being regarded as "foolish old fellows, who understand nothing and never speak a word." However, the bishop remains steadfast in his insistence on meeting them.

Upon reaching the island, the bishop discovers that the three hermits live a simple, modest life and possess a deep, genuine faith in God that surpasses his theological expertise. The hermits claim that they "do not know how to serve God." Still, despite their limited education and understanding, they express their commitment to the Lord by engaging in frequent prayer, pleading for mercy with the words:

"Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us."

Fascinated by their earnestness, the bishop feels compelled to impart the true interpretation of the Lord's Prayer to the hermits. Thus, he presents himself as an "unworthy servant of Christ" and spends the entire day patiently instructing them and correcting their recitation.

The bishop leaves the island and boards the ship as the night falls. While the ship sets sail, he reflects on his meeting with the hermits. He praises God for allowing him to help and teach them how to pray properly. Suddenly, he notices something "white and shining" in the distance and assumes it's either a seagull or "the little gleaming sail" of a boat. However, as the light rapidly approaches the ship, he realizes it is the three hermits, miraculously "running upon the water, gleaming white," and "their gray beards shining."

They inform the bishop that they have forgotten the prayer and humbly ask him to teach them the words again. Taken aback by their divine-like power, the bishop assures the hermits that God will listen to and embrace their prayer, regardless of its simplicity or inaccuracy. This implies that their faith and dedication transcend mere words, possessing purity and strength beyond measure. Subsequently, the bishop humbly lowers himself in front of the hermits, gazing in astonishment as they depart from the ship.

The narrator insinuates that the bishop realizes the error of his ways in attempting to correct the simple prayers of the hermits. At that moment, he truly understands the meaning of faith and spirituality. True devotion isn't defined by knowing and understanding religious and theological texts, having a formal education, or practicing various rituals; a genuine love for God defines it.

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