The Three Hermits

by Leo Tolstoy

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Meaning of Faith

A prevalent theme in "The Three Hermits" is the true meaning of faith and spirituality, evident through the contrasting portrayals of the bishop and the hermits.

The hermits, depicted as modest and humble individuals lacking formal education and knowledge of prayer, possess mysterious and profound spiritual wisdom. Their unique grasp and interpretation of faith arise from their profound love for God rather than strict adherence to the rules of the Church.

"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."

On the other hand, the bishop is educated and esteemed but noticeably lacks the hermits' spiritual insight, as his knowledge comes from books rather than personal understanding.

Observing the hermits' honest and deep faith and their genuine respect towards him, the bishop decides that he must teach them the correct way to pray, seeing it as the best way to honor God. In this context, Tolstoy highlights the bishop's firm belief that a proper connection with God requires a thorough understanding, familiarity, and engagement with the religious principles, practices, and rituals of Christianity.

"But you do not pray aright. You have won my affection, godly men. I see you wish to please the Lord, but you do not know how to serve Him. That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you. I will teach you, not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him."

However, with their unorthodox methods, the hermits demonstrate a special connection to the divine, suggesting that education and religious practices aren't the fundamental principles of faith and religious devotion. The hermits have extraordinary abilities, such as changing their appearance and walking on water, which serve as a clear indication.

...the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming white, their gray beards shining, and approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not morning.

Although they may have forgotten the exact words of the Trisagion and seek the bishop's help and guidance once again, he reassures them that God would hear their prayers. Tolstoy portrays the remarkable power that arises from their genuine faith and devotion.

"Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us, sinners."

And the bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.

Through the poignant characterization of the three hermits, Tolstoy effectively conveys that true faith can reside within even the humblest individuals, regardless of their educational background or social status. His goal is to challenge the idea that religious devotion depends on theological knowledge and intellectual comprehension, emphasizing that genuine love and sincerity are at the core of spirituality. He encourages readers to reflect on the true essence of faith and explore their spiritual paths.

Humility

In "The Three Hermits," Tolstoy presents humility as a virtue, and the hermits within the story serve as exemplary embodiments of this virtue in various ways.

Firstly, the hermits display humility through their simple way of life and their indifference towards material wealth and social status. They live in a small "earth hut," wear unpretentious clothes, and do not seek riches and power. Instead, they find...

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contentment in their solitude and devotion to God.

"That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls. ...They are holy men." ...a tall one with only a mat tied round his waist, a shorter one in a tattered peasant coat, and a very old one bent with age and wearing an old cassock—all three standing hand in hand.

Secondly, the hermits demonstrate humility through their attitudes toward others. Their kindness and hospitality, for example, are evident in their willingness to aid a stranded fisherman, providing him with food, drying his clothes, and mending his boat.

And the fisherman related how once, when he was out fishing, he had been stranded at night on that island, not knowing where he was. In the morning, as he wandered about the island, he came across an earth hut and met an old man standing near it. Presently, two others came out, and after having fed him and dried his things, they helped him mend his boat.

Finally, the hermits showcase their humility in response to the bishop's suggestion to teach them the correct words to the Lord's Prayer. When the bishop offers his help, they do not stubbornly cling to their unique spiritual practices but willingly and humbly accept his guidance, demonstrating their openness to new perspectives, lack of ego, and patience.

In the end, the bishop realizes that the hermits' humility overshadows the complex theological concepts and ceremonial religious practices and rituals and that God has rewarded their genuine love, faith, and devotion by granting them extraordinary powers and spiritual wisdom.

"Look there, what is that, my friend? What is it?"...Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!"

The passengers ...saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet.

By exploring the theme of humility, Tolstoy highlights the profound significance and power of this virtue and urges his readers to think about the effects of simplicity, sincerity, and spirituality.

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