April 28th, 2007

stained glass

To be a hermit

Now that I have told several people of my interest in an eremitic life, I'm getting used to the blank stares. Very few people know what I mean. So I thought I'd describe it briefly here, so that my friends know what on earth I am talking about.

Throughout the course of history, a few individuals have been compelled toward a spiritual life of silence and solitude. Elijah and Jesus went to the desert alone. In the 3rd century, Anthony followed their example, and Christian monasticism was born.

Known variously as hermits, anchorites or solitaries, Anthony's modern-day successors typically find that, although the life is challenging and difficult, silence and solitude is the context that works best for them to experience the intimacy with God for which they long.

This is not to say that the path is one of ease. Being a hermit is not about "getting away from it all." When I described it to one friend, she said solitude sounded like a wonderful opportunity to relax and take a break from work. Relaxing is nice, but that is not what eremitic life is about. It is very hard work. The work may be interior and not immediately visible, but there is nothing easy about it--especially since it often requires renouncing the comforts of family and friendships and the pursuit of material wealth.

For those who don't feel such a call, it can be very difficult to understand what anyone sees in it. Most people find their greatest fulfillment in relationships with lovers, family and friends, who are (usually) a source of joy. For solitaries, that same joy is found most compellingly in relationship with the Holy One, and to devote one's life completely to continually deepening that relationship. Our aim is to discover the perfection of Divine Love, removing the barriers to intimacy. Paradoxically, most solitaries discover that they are never less alone than when alone.

What does the life of a hermit look like, in the 21st century? It varies according to the setting. The life of a hermit in a well-established religious order with extensive support systems will be different than for a solitary who may need to keep his or her day job. But for all, becoming a hermit means restructuring one's life for a different purpose. Most people give priority to relationships with loved ones, or to personal achievement, and structure their lives to provide what is needed to sustain those priorities. By contrast, hermits structure their lives to sustain their relationship with the Holy One, above every other interest. Given this re-prioritization, one's life takes on a very different shape. The hermit withdraws from the world's values to immerse oneself totally in God.

The vocation of being a hermit may be unusual now, but it was not always so. The monastic movement began with hermits withdrawing to caves in the desert. In medieval times hermits were not only accepted but valued; people sought them out for spiritual counsel. In Europe some lived in isolated dwellings on islands (Lindisfarne, for example) or in the woods. Some lived in seclusion attached to a church; these were called anchorites (Julian of Norwich being the most famous example). Other hermits lived alongside one another, to support one another in the challenging solitary religious life; this was the origin of the Carthusians (as depicted in the popular film Into Great Silence) and Carmelites (like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila), and to a lesser extent the Trappists (like Thomas Merton).

The support of a community allows more freedom for prayer. A day in the life of a Carthusian, for example, has 10 hours for prayer and meditation, 2 hours for study, 2 hours for work, 2 hours of recreation, and 8 hours of sleep. The amount of time allotted for prayer/meditation compared to work is roughly opposite of most American adults. In the U.S. there are a few traditional hermit communities: a Carthusian monastery in Vermont, Carmelite hermits in New Jersey (men and women) and in Texas, and a small Episcopal group called the Solitaries of DeKoven, for example.

A 30-minute documentary about the lives of the Hermits of Bethlehem, a traditional "laura" of seven men and women Roman Catholic hermits in Chester, NJ, is available on YouTube in three 10-minute segments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Recently there is increasing interest in the hermit way of life from people who choose not to enter monasteries, but continue to live independently, in most cases keeping their homes and jobs and even families. Some refer to it as "urban monasticism" or "lay monasticism" and it has several varieties. If one is supported in this life by a specific church congregation, one may be termed an anchorite. The Roman Catholic Church has a canonically recognized vocation for consecrated hermits; the Episcopal Church has a rite for the setting apart of a special vocation. However most modern hermits are not affiliated with either a parish or a religious order; they may have made official vows supervised by a bishop, or they may just be doing it independently... the most difficult path of all. They are generally referred to as solitaries. There are several fellowships for solitaries, offering support via internet groups and newsletters.

It is not an easy option, and one which meets with little understanding from many of our fellow-Christians who have different ideas of what constitutes Christian living. In order to be faithful to the call we are aware of, we have to seek to understand the historical traditions of the solitary life which shows us that we are not at all "odd", but successors in a tradition which is as old as the church itself.” FOS