Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
On a ship sailing from Archangel into the White Sea is an Archbishop and several of his followers. While on deck, the Archbishop overhears a little fisherman telling the other passengers about three old men, “servants of God,” who live on an island barely visible on the distant horizon.
At the Archbishop’s request, the fisherman tells about his encounter with the three old men, who had once helped him when his boat struck on the remote island. The old men, he tells the Archbishop, were most peculiar in appearance. One was very old and hunchbacked, with green hairs mingled in his gray beard. Another, who had a yellowish gray beard and wore a ragged caftan, was also very old, but taller than the first and strong enough to turn the fisherman’s boat over “as if it were a pail.” The third was the tallest of the three, and he had a snowy beard that reached to his knees.
The Archbishop, having heard the fisherman’s story, asks the helmsman about the presence of three “holy men” on the distant island. The helmsman’s response indicates that the fisherman may have been merely “spinning yarns.” Nevertheless, the Archbishop goes to the captain and requests that the ship be brought close enough to the island that he can be rowed to it. This request does not please the captain, who tells the Archbishop that it would not be worth his while to see the old men. They are, he has heard, “imbeciles who understand nothing and are as dumb as the fishes of the sea.”
Neither the helmsman nor the captain, however, is able to dissuade the Archbishop, who offers to pay the captain well for changing the ship’s course so that he can visit the island. Thus, the captain changes the ship’s course and in a short while brings it to anchor near the island. A rowboat is lowered, and several rowers are commissioned to take the Archbishop to the beach, where, by telescope, three old men can already be seen standing near a large rock.
When the Archbishop lands on the shore, he finds the three old men just as the fisherman described them, all ancient in age, with long beards of varying shades of gray, and very poorly dressed. The old men say very little but are impressed by the presence of the Archbishop, who asks them how they make their devotions and how they pray to God. The oldest of the three answers for the others that they do not know how to make any devotions but know only how to serve and support themselves. As for prayer, says the old man, they only know to say, “Three are Ye, three are we. Have Ye mercy upon us.” As soon as the one old man says this simple prayer, the others look to Heaven and repeat in unison, “Three are Ye, three are we. Have Ye mercy upon us.”
The Archbishop is amused by the old men’s simple prayer. Citing Holy Scripture, he endeavors to teach them a prayer that he considers more pleasing to God, the Lord’s Prayer. Over and over he has them repeat the words after him: “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” The old men are very slow to learn this prayer, but at last they do manage to say it without the Archbishop’s prompting.
At dusk, the Archbishop takes his leave of the old men and returns by rowboat to the ship. He is very satisfied with himself, giving thanks to God that he has been able to provide such simple old hermits with instruction in the proper way to pray. As the island fades into the distance and the gathering darkness, however, he suddenly spots a flicker of light coming from its direction. The light seems to be overtaking them. He asks the helmsman what it might be—“a boat, or not a boat; a bird, or not a bird; a fish, or not a fish?” The helmsman, seeing the light take the shape of the three old men “moving rapidly over the sea,” drops the tiller and cries out: “Oh God of Heaven! There are three old men running upon the sea as upon dry land!”
As the ship’s company gathers at the stern to witness this miraculous event, the three old men, holding hands and moving rapidly over the sea “without moving their feet at all,” come up to the edge of the ship and address the Archbishop. “O servant of God,” they say, “we have forgotten . . . all that you taught us. So long as we repeated it, we remembered it. But for an hour we ceased repeating it, and every word escaped us. . . . Teach it to us again.”
The Archbishop is struck by this experience. He crosses himself and tells the old men, “Your prayer has also been suitable enough for God. It isn’t for me to teach you. Rather you should pray for us sinners!” He then bows down to their feet, whereupon they move back over the sea toward their island, from which a faint glimmer is visible until morning.