The other day I was sitting in a French patisserie reading a short story called “The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy when a hot guy walked in.
“The Three Hermits” is about a bishop traveling on a sea voyage. The ship passes a small island. The sailors whisper that there are three hermits who live on the island — three holy men.
The bishop overhears them and asks to visit the hermits. They row him out to the island. When the bishop steps on the beach, he sees them standing hand in hand. Three old, hobbled men with long beards and grey eyes. They live in a grass hut and wear dirty rags.
The bishop asks them how they praise the Lord. They shrug.
“We do not know how to to praise the Lord,” one says. “We just take care of each other. But every day we say to God: Three are ye, three are we. Have mercy upon us!”
The bishop is aghast. They do not know The Lord’s Prayer! Determined to teach them, he sits on a rock and recites with them, word for word: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” etc.
By this point, the guy in the patisserie — black hair, blue eyes, some stubble — was browsing the French milled soaps. I pictured him naked and slicking savon à la lavonde down his furry belly.
Back to the story. Night falls, and finally the three hermits can recite the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. The bishop kisses them each on the cheek and returns to the ship. The voyage continues.
While the sailors sleep on deck, the bishop is awake, thinking of the three men. Suddenly he sees something in the distance, approaching quickly. He alerts the captain and demands a spyglass, but already he can see what it is. The three old men are running across the water. They arrive at the side of the ship and shout up to the bishop, “Your lordship, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us! Teach us again!”
The bishop shouts down to them, “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”
Pray for us sinners. I closed the book, understanding the message. The unschooled impulse to pray is stronger than liturgy and doctrine. The child is closer to God than the priest.
Without believing in God (who, at his best, is an overused literary device), how does one interpret this story? A humanist reading might go like this: The closer we get to our basic nature, our simple self (wearing rags, living close to nature), the more divine we become.
I’ll buy it, because I believe that the animal state is the purest state, and that it is just as hard to get there — to our animal selves — as Christians believe it is to get to God.
But you can get close. If the animal state is divine, then gaining wisdom (godliness) would be a process of un-learning all the stuff that makes us civilized, culturally obedient humans.
Un-learning the ritual of recitation and prayers, un-learning the behavior of going to French stores and buying overpriced soap, un-learning gender roles and ethics and behavior standards — this would be the process to becoming pure.
This is something I think about a lot. But at that particular moment, I was thinking about the guy who was now sitting down at the table next to me.
I could smell his cologne. He was beautiful. An older woman carrying a binder walked up to his table, shook his hand, and sat down opposite him. She greeted him in French. He stumbled over his reply, Mon nom est David.
David. He was taking French lessons. His instructor had to repeat phrases several times. He was like the three hermits in the story, perfect in his childishness and his innocence, unfamiliar with the language. The words were tumbling out, jolted and off-sounding by his Southern drawl. He was a country boy learning French. I found myself cheering for him. I wanted to step over and kiss him, to pull the French from his throat with my tongue.
It made me think of when I first discovered my body. In many ways, learning sex is like learning a language, and I sometimes miss the purity I had then. All my sexual experiences in the beginning were motivated by curiosity and desire. There was no dishonesty, no other motive but to learn.
Sex is an old language for me now, but before it became ritual, it was impulse and instinct, me with my body, the god of flesh.
Have mercy on us.