Have you read Part 1: Upright and Part 2: Reversed? They’re not prerequisites for this discussion of historical hermits; this post, in fact, is meant to give more depth to the preceding posts. But go read them if you want to! And then come back here, because this stuff is fascinating.
All right, that’s enough metaphors. Let’s talk about real, historical hermits.
You might not be surprised to learn that I have felt a “call” towards a monastic life. And being a hermit–or an anchoress, maybe–sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it? It is what you would expect if you read the preceding parts of this post: One goes into ascetic seclusion–far from the local populace, if you’re a hermit, or in a room alone if you’re an anchoress–to focus on studying and prayer. Any other trappings or names are superficial.
A Very Quick Historical Overview
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were probably not the first people to have this idea. We’ve all considered moving away from everyone for a while to focus on what’s really important, right? And, you know, Jesus said to. But they were the ones who made the idea really popular. So popular, in fact, that although they were called hermits, there were so many that they eventually formed sketes–small communities of monks where each had separate living quarters but they still came together to share resources–and then cenobia, which were essentially monasteries, intentional communities based on religious beliefs and a life of worship. These got so crowded that they lived two and three to a room!
(Note: When I say “monastery” in this text, it includes nunneries, abbeys, etc. When I say “monk”, it includes nuns. In my opinion, if you’re living a life focused on That Which is Bigger Than You, everything falls away, including gender. Also, I am mainly focused on Christian/European monastic traditions, and will not say a lot about Eastern religious traditions, as I haven’t studied them as extensively and it’s not my place to do so.)
And community is very important in the monastic life! If you feel the call to live in a monastery, you will be expected to pull your weight in ways like growing and serving your food and keeping the place clean. There is emphasis on being able to live together harmoniously, and conflict resolution. A lot of monasteries do still keep silence between monks for a majority of the time, but you are still living together.
An anchoress or anchorite (the word coming from a Greek word meaning “to withdraw”) is a person who has been essentially sealed into a room at a monastery. They were required to vow that they would stay in that room for the foreseeable future; a hermit was permitted to move around. Their vows were accompanied by something very like a funerary rite, as they were becoming “dead to the world” as they withdrew. However, there were still windows cut into their cell walls, through which they could receive food, observe church services, and talk to people, who sometimes came for advice from this saintly person. (That doesn’t always turn out the way the Church might like it to, though.)
And hermits? Well, they live in hermitages. This is an imprecise word and can refer to any place where a person, or even a group of people, are living in seclusion for religious reasons. During certain periods of history, it was fashionable for those who had gardens large enough to accommodate it to have a hermitage installed on their property, with a Real Live Hermit available to give advice, pray for the family’s souls, and generally liven up the place.
All That is History Though, Right?
Well, monasteries generally operate in much the same way they always have. And certainly there are still people who choose to live alone to focus on prayer and study. “Hermit” is somewhat derogatory now, more used for people who have seclusion forced on them or who choose it for less “righteous” reasons. Anchorites are still around, but the practice of actually sealing them in a cell is not as common; nowadays your vow to stay in one place is considered enough of a seal.
Who are the modern-day hermits? Aside from the entire population of Tumblr (I love you), and the hikikomori. Here is The Hermitary, a blog dedicated entirely to the subject, with profiles of people who fit the description.
There aren’t exactly a lot of “famous hermits”, of course. Just living alone and refusing interviews isn’t enough. It’s about your intention. You choose–or are called–to hermitage because you want to be closer to God/Spirit/The Big Thing That Is. You want to spend half your day reading religious and philosophical texts over and over, spend a few more hours in contemplation or meditation, and spend the rest of the day practicing asceticism, doing the bare minimum to keep yourself healthy to spend the next day doing the same thing.
It’s not just getting away from the city or your neighbors. It’s not leisure time. It’s joyful, yeah, but it’s work. Not that it pays well–at least as this world counts “paying”.
How About Some Books
Books on Monastic Life in General
You can start with any of Thomas Merton’s books.
A Monastic Year by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette is a very entertaining look at how monasteries still function in modern times, and how their focus is on living as a community, and how monasteries are dying in this society where we simply don’t value learning and worship as an occupation.
Daily Life in a Medieval Monastery by Sherri Olson is a good look at records and documents of monasteries and the people who lived in them.
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor is an account of living at a monastery as a guest for a time, and is a beautiful, short read.
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman is about a modern Carmelite nun, and gives another look at how they function as a community.
Modern and DIY Monastic Life
Tantalus and the Pelican by Nicholas Buxton is about practicing monastic precepts in the modern, urban world.
The New Monasticism by Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee is another look at the same idea.
Silence, Simplicity & Solitude by Rabbi David A. Cooper is about how to plan a Zen- or monastic-style retreat for yourself.
On Prayer and the Contemplative Life by St Thomas Aquinas is the perennial classic.
Listening Below the Noise by Anne D. and Chris LeClair is specifically about the practice of silence (as in “taking a vow of silence”).
A Sunlit Absence by Martin Laird also goes into the practices of silence and contemplation
Backpacking with the Saints by Belden C. Lane is an absolutely gorgeous account of hiking and contemplation
Journal of a Solitude by poet May Sarton
Thanks for coming with me on this deep dive into the Hermit! I didn’t realize when I started that this would have so much depth–I mean, at first glance, he’s just a guy in a robe with a lamp, right? But there’s another of his lessons: You can’t know his secrets until you get to know him. He doesn’t tell you anything until you go up and ask.
Do you feel a call to a monastic or eremitic life? Let’s be Hermits United! Or we can just chat in the comments. Would you like a tarot reading, at 1$ per card, to see if the Hermit has any lessons for you? Talk to me!
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