“And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.”
—Matthew (vi. 7, 8)
You know a story is good when it stays with you for years, when it keeps creeping back to consciousness from time to time. Such is the case with Leo Tolstoy’s classic, “The Three Hermits,” based on an Old Russian legend about three recluses who lived on an island and led the simplest of lives.
Their only prayer: “We are three, Thou art Thee; have mercy on us.” Even so, they were reputed far and wide to have performed miracles.
When the local bishop heard of their exploits he couldn’t resist sailing out to pay them a visit. And while he was there, he’d teach them more church-proper prayers than “We are three, Thou art Thee; have mercy on us.” When he arrived on the island he proceeded to teach them The Lord’s Prayer.
He spent hours on end working with the three hermits to help them memorize it, though they fumbled and faltered throughout more often than not. Finally it appeared that all three had it mastered, and the bishop felt content to take his leave, satisfied at his good deed.
As he set sail once again, he heard the hermits back on the island praying The Lord’s Prayer in unison, just as he’d taught them so well. That night he stood on the deck in the middle of the sea under the starry sky, basking in his accomplishment and thanking God for allowing him to teach such simple island dwellers the proper way to pray. As he gazed out at the water he saw coming toward the ship a blinding white light – a flock of seagulls?
No, couldn’t be seagulls out here in the middle of the night, could it? He soon grew as frightened as Peter when he saw Jesus walking on water and imagined him to be a ghost. But finally the bishop discerned the light to be the three hermits holding hands and running on the waves to catch up with him.
As they drew nearer, the bishop could hear the holy men crying out in a single voice, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God.” And they pleaded with him to repeat it again, just one more time. To which the amazed bishop replied with a humbled heart, “No, your old prayer works just fine. You don’t need me after all. Go your way and pray for us sinners.”