Russian Literary Treasure: The Legend of the Three Hermits

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy,
Ilya Efimovich Repin, 1887

An old legend from the Volga District tells of a Bishop who was traveling from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery. While on board the ship, he overheard a sailor telling other passengers about three hermits who lived on a remote island along the route of the ship. When the Bishop inquired about the story, he was told that there were rumors about these three hermits who lived on this island for the “salvation of their souls.”

The Bishop’s curiosity was piqued, so he decided he wanted to visit the three hermits. He instructed the captain of the ship to trim the sails and take him to this island. The captain dutifully complied. As the Bishop approached the island on a rowboat powered by a crew from the sailing ship, he saw the three hermits (“the tall one,” “the short one” and the “old one”) standing on the shore hand-in-hand.

After they bowed and he blessed them, the Bishop said, “I have heard that you, godly men, live here saving your souls and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.” The old men smiled, but remained silent.

“Tell me,” said the Bishop, “what are you doing to save your souls, and how do you serve God on this island?” The old hermit responded, “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 this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.” And when the old man said this, all three hermits raised their eyes to heaven and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.”

So the Bishop began to teach the three hermits the Lord’s Prayer. All day long he labored, saying each word and phrase over many times. He did not quit until they could repeat the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety. As night approached, the hermits were finally able to say the Lord’s Prayer without error, so the Bishop said farewell and returned to the ship.

That night the Bishop could not sleep, but sat near the rear of the ship watching as the island disappeared from sight. As he gazed into the dark, he noticed a light sparkling on the water. It grew in intensity and became brighter and brighter. It was as if a ship were rapidly approaching and overtaking them.

To his amazement, the Bishop suddenly realized that it was the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming in white with their grey beards shining. When they saw the Bishop, they said in one voice, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the side of the ship said, “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.

Rediscovering Russia’s Rich Heritage

This legend, recaptured by Leo Tolstoy in 1886, is one example of the rich literary heritage of Russian culture. Efforts to build a New Russia and to educate a new generation of Russian leaders must begin, not by looking to the West for answers, but by rediscovering the wealth of its own literature, which addresses the critical spiritual and moral issues of life in profound and creative ways. This short legend, which is provocative as well as delightful, is just one example.

The influence of Christianity on Russian culture is pervasive, despite the seventy-year effort to ignore and even obliterate its influence. Building a New Russia must begin with its citizens rediscovering their own rich heritage. Education will be one of the keys in this process of rediscovery.