Tolstoy's "The Three Hermits"

Translated by A. M. O'Hara and Elena Zakryzhevskaya.


But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathens do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him

– Matthew 6:7-8. 


A bishop was sailing from Arkhangelsk to the Solovetsky Monastery; on the same ship, a group of pilgrims also sailed to pay homage to the saints. The wind was favourable, the weather fine, and the sea calm. The pilgrims — some of whom lay about, others snacked idly, and some sat in groups — talked among themselves. The bishop appeared up on deck and began to pace along the bridge. As the bishop approached the ship’s prow, he saw a throng of people and a man, pointing out to sea, talking to them. The bishop paused and looked out to where the man was pointing — nothing could be seen apart from the gleam of the sun on the sea. The bishop came nearer to try and catch what was being said; however, the man spied the bishop, took off his cap, and said no more. The crowd too saw the bishop and removed their caps.


“Do not mind me, brothers” spoke the bishop. “I too have come to hear what this good man has to say.” 


“Well, the fisherman was telling us about the hermits,” said a merchant, one of the bolder of the crowd.


“What hermits?” asked the bishop, as he went to the side of the deck and sat on a crate. “Tell me, I am listening. What were you pointing at?”


“That small island, over there on the horizon,” replied the fisherman and he pointed straight out from the starboard side. “On that island there, the hermits live, trying to find salvation.” 

“Where is this small island?” asked the bishop.


“Here, follow my hand. There’s a small cloud in the distance, and a little to the left, a bit down, like a strip, you can make it out.” 


The bishop looked and looked, the water rippled in the sunlight, but he saw nothing, for his eyes were not accustomed to such tasks.


“I do not see it,” he said. “And how do these hermits live on this island?”


“They are godly people,” answered the fisherman. “I heard about them long ago, but I only saw them with my own eyes last summer.”


And the fisherman began to tell the story of how he had gone to that small island to fish but that he became lost there and how in the morning he went out for a walk and came upon a small mud hut and saw one of the hermits; but then another hermit appeared from the hut, and soon another, and they fed him and helped to fix his boat.


“What were they like?” questioned the bishop.


“One was tiny, hunchbacked, quite ancient, dressed in a tattered cassock, himself surely more than a hundred years old, his grey beard had already begun to turn green, but always smiling and cheerful, like a heavenly angel. The second was a bit taller, also old, dressed in a torn kaftan, with a wide beard that was both grey and yellow. He was strong: he flipped my boat over like a pail, before I even managed to give him a hand. He was also jolly. The third man was very tall, with a beard that was as white as a hen harrier, and stretched down to his knees — he was gloomy, eyebrows sagging over his eyes, naked except for a rag around his waist.” 


“What did they talk to you about?” asked the bishop.


“They mostly worked in silence and spoke little to each other. One only had to look at the other, and the other would understand. I began to ask the tallest one how long they had lived there like this. He only frowned at what I said and became irritated, but the small, ancient hermit came and took his hand and smiled, and the middle-sized one calmed him down. The ancient one only said, ‘Have mercy on us’, and smiled.” 


While the man was speaking, the ship sailed still closer to the small island.


“Well now, look, it’s quite clear to see,” said the merchant. “Here, look, Your Excellency,” he said, pointing.


The bishop began to look and could see a black streak — the island. The bishop watched intently, left the bow and turned to the stern, approaching the helmsman. 


“That small island,” he said, “can you make it out?”


“Ah, it doesn’t have a name. There are many like that in these parts.”


“Is it true, as they say, that hermits live there, seeking salvation?”


“They say so, Your Excellency, but I wouldn’t know the truth of it. Fishermen, it is said, have seen them, but fisherman often tell tall tales.”


“I wish to go to this island, to see these hermits,” said the bishop. “How can this be done?”


“The ship cannot go so far,” said the helmsman. “In a tender it may be possible, though I’ll need to speak to the captain.” 


The captain was duly summoned. “I would like to see these hermits,” said the bishop. “Can you take me out or not?”


 The captain attempted to talk him out of it: “It is possible, yes, but we would lose much time and I might add, Your Excellency, it is not worth such trouble. I have heard that old fools live there, both deaf and dumb, like the fish of the sea.”


“I would like to go,” said the bishop. “And I shall pay you for your services.”


And so the sailors made ready the sails. The helmsman changed course, and the ship sailed towards the island. A chair was brought for the bishop at the prow — there he sat and watched, and the crowd gathered around, all looking at the island. Those with keener sight already glimpsed rocks on the island and a mud hut. One man even made out the three hermits in the distance. The captain took out his spyglass, peered through it, and then passed it to the bishop. “Just so — there, on the right of the large stone, three men are standing.” The bishop looked through the spyglass, adjusting as necessary, and saw the three clearly: one tall, the second a little shorter, and the third very small, standing on the shoreline, holding hands.


The captain approached the bishop. “Here, Your Excellency, I must anchor the ship. If it pleases you, from here on you may travel in the ship’s tender.”


Now the ship dropped anchor and furled its sails — the ship jerked and reeled. The tender was lowered, and the oarsmen jumped off to take up their positions, while the bishop began to descend a small ladder. The bishop took his place on a bench on the boat and the oarsmen began to row towards the island. They sailed as far as a stone’s throw; the three hermits were visible — the tall one, naked, the middle one in a torn kaftan, and the ancient one, hunched in his cassock — all standing together, hands linked. The oarsmen brought the boat to the shore and moored it to the beach; the bishop exited the boat.


The hermits bowed towards him and he blessed them, and they bowed still lower. The bishop began to speak.


“I have heard,” he said, “that you here are holy hermits, seeking salvation, praying to Christ for the sake of all people. Now I am here, by the grace of God, an unworthy servant of Christ, having been called to feed His flock. I have come to see whether I might be able to impart some teachings to you, servants of God.”


The hermits were silent, smiling broadly, glancing at each other.


“Tell me, how do you seek to save your souls and, indeed, how do you serve the Lord?” asked the bishop. 


The middle hermit sighed and looked to the smallest hermit, the ancient one; the tall one grimaced and looked to the smallest hermit also; and the smallest hermit himself smiled and said: “We know not, servant of God, how to serve the Lord, only how to serve and feed ourselves.” 


“But how do you pray to God?”  asked the bishop. 


And the ancient hermit said, “We pray like so: three of you, three of us, have mercy on us.” 


The bishop laughed and said: “So you have heard of the Holy Trinity, though that is not how to pray. I am fond of you, holy hermits; I see that you wish to please God, even though you know not how to praise Him. One does not pray like that, but listen and I shall teach you. I shall not teach you according to my own way, but I shall teach you to pray the way that God commanded in the Holy Scriptures.”


So the bishop began to explain to the hermits how God had revealed himself to Man: he explained how God was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and said: “God the Son appeared on Earth to save Man and taught all people how to pray. Listen and repeat after me.” 


The bishop began to say, “Our Father”, and one of the hermits repeated “Our Father”, then the second, and then the third. “Who art in heaven”, continued the bishop. The hermits repeated “Who art in heaven”, but the middle hermit became confused and did not say it right. The tall, naked hermit, whose mouth was covered by his overgrown beard, could not pronounce the words clearly. The ancient one, quite toothless, mumbled inaudibly. 


The bishop repeated once more, and the hermits followed. The bishop sat down on a stone by the hermits and listened carefully to them. Until night, the bishop laboured with them; ten times, twenty times, a hundred times rehearsing each word. Again and again the hermits became confused, and the bishop corrected them, and forced them to start anew. 


The bishop did not leave the hermits until he had taught them the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer. They recited the prayer with the bishop and by themselves. The middle hermit understood more quickly than the rest and was soon able to repeat it fully — the bishop told him to repeat it time and time again, and the others eventually recited the prayer in full. 


It had already begun to get dark, with the moon rising up from the sea, when the bishop departed for the ship. The bishop bade farewell to the hermits and they bowed down before his feet. The bishop raised them up, kissed each of them, and instructed them to pray every day, just as he had taught them, and he took his place on the tender and headed back out to the ship.


When the tender was once again out at sea, all could hear how the hermits in three voices loudly repeated the Lord’s Prayer. Soon, the voices of the hermits could no longer be heard, but the light of the moon showed the three of them on the shore in the same position — one smaller than the rest, in the centre, the tall one on the right and, to the left, the one of average height. The bishop came up by the ship and went up on deck; the anchor was raised, the sails were hoisted which, having caught the wind, drove the ship farther and farther. The bishop went to the stern and sat down there, looking towards the island. At first the hermits were visible, but soon they disappeared from view; only the small island remained in the distance before it too vanished, leaving the sea playing in the moonlight.


The pilgrims lay down to sleep and everything was quiet on deck. The bishop, however, did not want to sleep and instead sat by himself at the stern, looking out across to where the island had disappeared behind the horizon, and thought about the kindly hermits. He thought about how they had rejoiced when they learnt the prayer, and he gave thanks to God for having led him to these holy hermits, to teach them the word of the Lord. 


And the bishop sat there, thinking, looking out to sea in the direction of the vanished island, his eyes dazzled by the way that the light played across the waves. Suddenly, something white shined in a ray of moonlight — birds, perhaps, or a seagull, or even the white of a sailboat. The bishop’s eyes became used to the light: “A sailboat,” he thought, “which is coming up on us. Indeed, soon it will overtake us. It was very far away, but now appears to be quite close. But it mustn’t be a boat, as it certainly does not have a sail. But it is still catching up to us.” The bishop could not make out what it was: not a ship, nor a bird or fish. It really seemed to look like a person, but, of course, a person could not be found in the middle of the ocean. The bishop roused himself and went over to the helmsman:


“Look,” he said, “what’s that?”


“What’s that, brother? What is it?” asked the Bishop, but he could see for himself now — skimming across the surface of the sea towards the ship, standing quite still, were the hermits, their grey beards shining.


The helmsman looked around, horrified, lost grip on the helm and cried in a loud voice: “My God! The hermits are coming after us on the sea, just as if they were on dry land!” The people heard his exclamation, awoke, and rushed towards the stern. Everyone could see them now: the hermits were approaching, holding hands, their free hands waving at the ship for it to stop. All three travelled across the water as if it were land, though without moving their legs. 


The ship did not have time to stop before the hermits drew level with her and came right up to her side; they raised their heads and spoke in one voice: “We’ve forgotten, servant of God, we’ve forgotten your teaching! We repeated, we remembered, but after we stopped for an hour, only a word popped out — we forgot and everything fell apart! We remember nothing, teach us again.”


The bishop crossed himself, turned to the hermits and said, “Your prayers are pleasing to God, holy hermits! It is not for me to teach you — pray for us sinners!”

And with this the bishop bowed down before the feet of the hermits.  And the hermits stopped, turned around, and went back across the sea. Their path across the waters shone brightly until morning came.

About the translators: A. M. O'Hara has degrees in Law and Russian. Elena Zakryzhevskaya is a PhD candidate at Moscow State University.

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