Between 1875 and 1877, Leo Tolstoy, nobility by birth, wrote installments of Anna Karenina. While writing Anna Karenina,” he became obsessed with the meaning and purpose of life. This led Tolstoy to compose the essay, My Confession, detailing his agonizing religious and moral self-examination, published in 1882. He devoted another three years to the discovery of the meaning and purpose of life. At the close of the seven years of only non-fiction essays, Tolstoy resumed writing and publishing fictional works.
However, he did write two more essays devoted to the meaning of life, What Then Must We Do (1886) and The Kingdom of God is Within You (1892). Tolstoy, in 1886 wrote a particularly intriguing tale of a bishop and three old men, The Three Hermits,” which reflects Tolstoy’s search for purpose and the meaning of life.
The Three Hermits is a journey, both physical and spiritual, similar to Tolstoy’s faith journey. “A bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery, and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine at that place” (Tolstoy, p. 1). The story goes on to say that a fisherman on board relayed the tale of the three hermits who live on an island near where they currently were sailing.
The Bishop becomes very curious, and insists upon meeting the hermits. The other pilgrims protest at the idea of stopping. The captain also objects and informs the bishop, “The old men are not worth your pains. I have heard said that they are foolish old fellows, who understand nothing, and never speak a word, any more than the fish in the sea” (Tolstoy, p.3). This passage makes an ironic point.
The pilgrims travel to Solovetsk, home of a monastery considered one of the holy places in Russia, to pay homage and receive God’s favor, yet they are unwilling to learn from people close to God, much like the people of Tolstoy’s time, too wrapped up in the church’s doctrine to see the way to God. Tolstoy wrote in Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand, a chapter of The Kingdom of God is Within You that Christians must aspire to the Kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of the world, meaning that the idols and relics of the church are worthless, people should instead visit God through meaningful prayer, good deeds, and work. The tale continues on to say, “the cable was quickly let out, the anchor cast and the sails furled Then a boat having been lowered the oarsman jumped in, and the Bishop descended the ladder and took a seat” (Tolstoy, p.3). This could be interpreted as the bishop being humbled, lowering himself on to the boat. A bishop is defined as an overseer, a supervisor, holding a position one rank over a priest.
Therefore, he by going to the island humbled himself. The story continues in the tale by telling of the hermits, how they bowed before him, and the priest’s teaching them to pray, the Lord’s Prayer, instead of theirs, “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us” (Tolstoy, p.4). Upon leaving, the priest in the distance hears them praying. When the island was no longer visible, he relaxed and “he thanked god for having sent him to teach and help such godly men” (Tolstoy, p.5).
No sooner had he uttered the words than did the Hermits appear running through the water. The three in one voice said,
“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 all has gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.” The bishop crossed himself and leaning over the ship’s side 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 men. (p. 5-6).
The hermits show a great deal of respect for the church and God, thus, they bow low before the Bishop, as a sign of respect, knowing he is God’s servant.