Mar 31, 2009


Leo Tolstoy, as well as Fyodor Dostoyevski, was deeply influenced and moved by the eremitic legacy of the Russian startsy (elders), and they were all too familiar with tales of wondrous incidents in the lives of these Russian hermits.  Here is one of them.
Tolstoy wrote of the encounter between a Russian Orthodox bishop and three hermits.  The bishop was traveling by boat with other pilgrims from Archangel to the Solovetsk monastery.  On the way he heard rumors that on an obscure little island along the way there were three old hermits that had spent their entire lives trying to save their souls.  The bishop became intrigued and implored the captain to stop the ship so that he could visit them.  The captain reluctantly agreed and dropped anchor near the island.  The bishop was then placed on a boat and with a group of oarsmen sent ashore.  The three hermits were dressed raggedly with long white beards to their knees.  In total humility they welcomed the bishop, making deep bows.  After he blessed them he asked them what they were doing to save their souls and serve God.  They replied that they had no idea how to serve God.  They just served and supported each other.  The bishop realized that the poor hermits didn't even know how to pray, since all they did was lift their arms up towards heaven and repeat, "Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us."  The bishop considered it his ecclesiastical duty to teach the illiterate hermits the Lord's Prayer.  They, however, were poor learners and required a whole day of instruction.  At dusk and before returning to the ship, the bishop even offered them a short and simple lesson on Christian theology.

But lo and behold!  During sunset as the boat left the island, all the passengers saw a sight in the distance that filled them with fright.  The three hermits were running on water as if it were dry land.  When they came by the side of the ship they implored the bishop to remind them of the Lord's Prayer because, poor fellows, they had already completely forgotten it.  The bishop crossed himself in awe and told the hermits to continue their own prayers, for they had no need for instruction.  Then he bowed deeply before the old men and asked them to pray for him as they turned and ran back across the sea to their island.  "And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight."

- from The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos C. Markides, p. 146.

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