A certain Archbishop heard a rumor that on a nearby island, there lived a group of Christian hermits who had been shipwrecked long ago and had taken up residence there. People said that they had lived there since they were young men and had very little contact with outsiders. Furthermore, it was said, their understanding of the Christian faith had fallen into disarray after all their many years of conclusion. It was said that these hermits could no longer recite the Apostles Creed, they couldn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer, and they didn’t know a thing about the trinity or the incarnation. The Archbishop felt a burden in his heart for these hermits and decided to search them out so that he might bring them back to Christian society.
The Archbishop set sail for the location where the hermits were supposed to be and, sure enough, he found the island exactly as described. When he came to shore, the Archbishop found a small camp where three hermits lived. They each had long white beards down to their waist. The Archbishop greeted the hermits and quickly discovered that all the stories he had heard about them were true. They knew next to nothing about their Christian faith on account of the fact that they were extremely forgetful. The only prayer they knew how to recite was, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” The Archbishop, offered to take them to the mainland so they could be among Christian society, but the hermits had been in eachother’s company on the island so long that they had become quite happy there and they politely refused.
So the Archbishop decided to educate them before he left. He labored at length to teach them the creed, but the three hermits were so forgetful that they simply couldn’t keep any of the information in their heads long enough for it to sink in. Trying to explain the trinity and the incarnation was even more hopeless so the Archbishop focused his efforts on at least getting the hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The Archbishop worked with them well into the night. The hermits were eager students. At first they slipped into their habit of praying, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.” But after hours of repetition they finally had the Lord’s Prayer down solid. Satisfied with his work, the Archbishop blessed the three hermits and went on his way. He had only been out from shore for about 2o minutes when he heard noise coming from behind the boat. When he turned to see what it was, his jaw dropped. To his astonishment, the three hermits were running across the water to catch up to him. When they finally made it to the boat, they stood on the waves and called out:
“Archbishop! Archbishop! Teach us the words to your prayer again! We’ve already forgotten them!”
At that very moment, the Archbishop fell on his knees and, looking up to Heaven, he prayed, “Lord have mercy on this sinner.”
Leo Tolstoy gives this old Russian folk tale the short story treatment and it is well worth seeking out. It is easy to have disdain for those that we consider to be less knowledgable about the faith than we. It is a trap that those of us who have been in Church all our lives continually fall into. Some even make sport of critiquing the theology of others and cutting them down to size for their simplistic ideas. The truth though, is that Christ is after our hearts, not our heads. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises that it is the “pure in heart” who will see God. A prayer prayed in deep sincerity is answered even if it is not beautiful or learned. As the hold hymn goes, “Let not conscience make ye linger/ nor of fitness fondly dream/ all the fitness He requireth/ is to feel your need of him.” A faith that knows nothing but that it needs the mercy of Christ is a faith that can walk on water.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…