Leo Tolstoy – “The Three Hermits” - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/tolstoy/23_tales.pdf
8"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 28)
33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." 36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me" (Mark 9).
This short story raised a dilemma that I have been thinking about for a while. In the search for the answer the question has changed. I began with the question of what is greatness as a Christian. My starting point is: wanting position so my peers will look up to me and I will be respected. Then the verses above flipped that around to: serving to gain a place of position because my circle of friends accepts the idea that serving is the path to greatness. However, service is also matched with humility. This internal desire for greatness and respect is achieved by humility. In my experience humility can be achieved even with a motivation of greatness, because the motivation of greatness slips away. But it comes crashing back with a single compliment. This has been an enormous struggle in my life. The pursuit of humility is a joke when the most humble person is the one who has got things right and so should be respected because of that. If I based my claim to fame on my humility I am instantly a sham.
Matthew 28:8-10 provide an important step that helps. There is no position to be achieved. There are only two levels, the student and the teacher. Christ is the only teacher so the rest of us are all the same. There is no position to attain.
I think this is what Tolstoy is trying to convey with the story of the three hermits. He contrasts the spirituality of the hermits and the bishop. The bishop has position, when he approaches the sailors they all became very timid, quite and respectful. The bishop had captured the religious reverence and used it for himself. He had taken the place of Christ as the teacher. Tolstoy then compares his spiritual depth to that of the three hermits. The three hermits are simple men that are always described as holding hands and pray simply “we are three, ye are three; have mercy on us.” They are equals.
In the meeting between the hermits and the bishop, the bishop assumed the position of a teacher and spent the day teaching the hermits the Lord’s Prayer. They eventually got it and the bishop returned to his ship. The hermits however forgot the Lord’s Prayer and walked on the water to the boat to find the bishop so he could teach it to them again.
Humility can’t be taught, nor do I suppose the spirituality that makes the three hermits so enigmatic. The three hermits achieved brotherhood by accepting Christ as the teacher and the status of student.
There is one paragraph that I don’t get; the context is the sailor is describing his experience with the Hermits to the Bishop: “I asked the tallest whether they had lived there long. He frowned, and muttered something as if he were angry; but the oldest one took his hand and smiled, and then the tall one was quite. The oldest one only said: ‘Have mercy upon us,’ and smiled.”
My thoughts are that the tallest one was angered by the fact that the sailor had missed the point, he didn’t get that time didn’t matter. Or, maybe Tolstoy didn’t actually mean to imply that he was angry, but it was just a miscommunication, in that case the tallest one may have just been having a hard time talking. My inclination is that it is the latter explanation and Tolstoy was trying to portray the simple nature of the Hermits.
What ever the case, I find myself completely taken by the hermit spirituality.