Christian Hermits

by frankbeswick

A small number of Christians practise the eremitical lifestyle, dwelling alone for religious reasons.

There are not many who choose to be hermits.Some do it for a short period of time, forty days, as Jesus did in the wilderness. Others choose it as a way of life. It is a way of life different from the lifestyle of the loner, for it is focused on prayer for long periods and deep reflection. Some try to be hermits, but cannot sustain the lifestyle, while others thrive. But the Christian hermit belongs to a faith that enjoins care for others, and so he/she must always be prepared to move from solitude to encounter for charitable reasons, and they must never omit the shared collective worship that is at the heart of the Christian life.

The image above shows the Lleyn Peninsula where the hermit Verena Schiller lived. Image courtesy of Harmich

The first hermits

While Jesus spent forty days in the desert, he spent most of his time in contact with others, withdrawing only at times to pray alone in communion with his Father; but some rare persons have chosen to retreat from society to dwell in prayer. In the earliest years of the church there were no hermits,and it seems that the eremitical [hermit] life developed in Egypt during the third century when some individuals retreated from the corruptions, temptations and pressures of the Graeco-Roman world into the deserts, where in caves and at oases they would construct a hut, grow a minimum of food and spend their time in prayer. These people came to be known as the Desert Fathers, and they lived lives of serious ascetism,focused on fasting and prayer. 

As time moved on the eremitical tradition spread from Egypt to Ireland,  where it influenced the Celtic church. The religious connection connection between Egyptian and Irish Christianity almost certainly antedates St Patrick, but documentary evidence is lacking.  It  was,however, the case that devout Irish men and women used to find remote islands to be their personal desert where they could dwell prayerfully alone with God,living on what nature and their small gardens provided. On many islands they probably ate shellfish and seaweed, a privation that they saw as part of the life of strict fasting that the severe hermit's existence  required.   

To a great extent the life of complete solitude was hard to sustain.For example, Saint Antony the Abbot, one of the great inspirations for the Egyptian solitary life, was besieged by people coming to seek his advice and blessing.At first he rebuffed them, but in the end conceded to the demands of duty and advised them.Some stayed near him and a loose community of hermits developed in the Egyptian desert inspired by Antony, hence he has the title abbot,even though he was never formally ordained or appointed to this monastic rank. The solitary life did him no lasting harm, as he managed to reach a hundred and five before he died.

I must emphasize that a hermit is a solitary for religious reasons, and so must be distinguished from one who dislikes company or prefers solitude to social existence. Christian hermits must also remember that they are part of a religion which is based on the presence of God in Christ in the church, and so they cannot completely forget the social dimension of their lives. For example the Desert Fathers used to come out of the desert once a year to take communion with their fellow Christians at Easter. So any hermit who takes up the eremitical life out of a sense of dislike of human company is acting out of an unchristian motive. Furthermore, the Christian hermit must be always ready to respond to others in charity, and give service to  the  church and through the church to humanity.

Alone with your Demons

The life of a hermit is emotionally hard, which is why the Catholic Church insists that it is taken up only by monks and nuns acting with the permission of their superior. Other churches, such as the Coptic Church of Egypt, have the same rule. This is because there are psychological and spiritual dangers to this way of life. Part of the danger is to be left alone with yourself and the evil tendencies within you.When you are alone for long periods the imagination works overtime, and you do not always like what you imagine. There is also the danger that as you become more spiritually sensitive you are sensitized not only to the presence of good, but also of evil, and that is not pleasant.  

Antony the Abbot, having lived twenty years in an abandoned fort, had some rather nasty experiences. One night he felt himself besieged by devils who were whipping him, and this went on for some time. His friend, Saint Athanasius, interpreted the experience as a fantasy brought about by his privations, put simply Antony  had done himself some harm by excessive fasting. Others have been more chemical about it, pointing out that some of the bread thrown over the fort wall to Antony  by devotees might have been infected by ergot, an hallucinatory fungus that causes some horrible fantasies. The truth about these experiences cannot be ascertained.But he faced the horrors alone!

St Cuthbert dwelling as a hermit not far from his monastery alone on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast had some bad experiences, claiming that demons taunted him from a nearby island. In the darkness and the wind of that coastline nights must have been hard. St Guthlac alone in the fens of eastern England claimed that demons taunted him by calling his name, but Guthlac was a repentant bandit, an armed robber, and the demons were most likely the evil inside him from which he was fleeing. But you cannot run from what is inside you,for it runs with you. Put simply, humans need the fellowship of others and to  deprive oneself of it is a hard task fraught with danger, one that should be taken as a vocation after careful consideration. 

Yet Father Lazarus, the spiritual director of the hermits linked to a Coptic monastery, whom Reverend Owen Jones interviewed for a very stimulating television  programme  in 2009, was adamant that any one who wanted to be a hermit must be aware that not only can they be sensitized to the holy and good, but they will become aware of evil, and some cannot cope with it. You can find more by typing Father Lazarus into the search engine, where there are several references to him.  You might also be interested in a short story that I wrote about a hermit, which can be found on www.frankbeswick.co.uk  It is the latest entry on that website, and it is entitled Genius Loci [Latin for The Spirit of the Place.]

The Hermit's Life

The eremitical existence involves not isolation from others, but deep intimacy with God, for hermits spend much time in contemplative prayer and meditation. Contemplative prayer is the goal of all Christian prayerfulness.This is a kind of prayer in which the individual praying comes into the divine presence and rests in it, often silently and rapt in the act of worship.Christian meditation differs from the kind popularized by Hindus and Buddhists, for it involves reflecting on Scripture or religious concepts. Yet Christian hermits cannot cut themselves off from contact with others, for they can be called from their solitary life in the cause of duty, and they cannot refuse if they are to  be true to their Christian calling.Pope Celestine the Fifth [1215-1294] was a saintly hermit called from his quiet existence to be pope, a position he accepted unwillingly out of  duty. He reigned five months before abdicating, only to be imprisoned by his successor, Boniface the Eighth, dying quietly two years later in the castle where he turned his cell into a hermitage.

Hermits eschew social contact, but not totally. Sister Wendy Beckett, an English nun and art expert, dwells in a caravan in the grounds of a convent of Carmelite nuns in the South  of England, where she speaks only to two nuns, the mother superior and the nun who brings her the daily provisions. but when she was delivering a television series on the history of Art, a subject in which she is an expert, she spoke fluently and long to the cameras. Wendy, who studied at Oxford where she obtained the highest marks ever achieved in an English degree, recognizes that she must talk when necessary. She also has to join with other nuns to attend daily mass. But beyond this she lives and works alone.

Like all members of Catholic religious orders hermits must work for their living, and Wendy does this by spending two hours a day putting her first class academic brain to use by translating Latin manuscripts or by writing books on the history of Art.

Another nun who was for many years a hermit on the Lleyn Peninsula of Wales was Verena Schiller, but eventually she had to accept the medical limitations of old age and return to communal living in a small convent with some like minded sisters. She wrote of her experiences in a lovely book, A Simplified Life.Verena relished the quietness of the Lleyn and its beauty,which added to her prayer life, gave her added strength to cope with her way of life.She seems to have suffered none of the crises that some of the hermits cited earlier on suffered.

Some Catholic  groups attempt to combine the  eremitical life with the communal life. One such group are the Carthusians, parallel orders of males and females who dwell in monasteries, but each in their own cell, where they live lives of prayer and study. You can purchase a book titled Interior Prayer by A Carthusian. They use their scholarship to produce writings, but never in their own names. All their books have the same author, A Carthusian.  They spend two hours a day gardening for exercise and to produce their own food.The lifestyle involves wearing hair shirts for penance, and while they eat silently together and share in collective worship they have a limited period of socialization once a week. All the Carthusian hermits are ordained priests, but there are unordained brothers who live in community and perform the routine tasks of the monastery.

Reflections

The Hermit's existence is not  for everyone, but there is a small number of people for whom it is a calling. For  many it can be a temporary stage in the religious life, but for a few it is a lifelong ideal and commitment. Some try to achieve an eremitical life, but fail to sustain it,and some flee quickly from its emotional rigours and fears. It is undesirable to avoid all human contact, and most hermits merely minimize it to that contact which is necessary. No Christian can completely cut himself or herself off from the collective life of the church, so communal prayer must always be part of the hermit's life.

The eremitical existence is not a life that is always lived in the wilderness, but the wilderness is merely a place where hermits can find peace and quiet. But you can be a hermit in a town or a city, though it is much harder to do it there than it is in a wilderness. While wilderness is not necessary, a  quiet situation is, for excess noise is inimical to the eremitical existence. While silence is desirable, remember that the Irish monk-hermits often relished the music of nature, the lapping of the waves, the sighing of the wind and the sounds of animals, which they saw as nature joining in a great chorus in honour of God.

Updated: 05/03/2016, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 05/13/2016

Books. Helen Waddell's The Desert Fathers is one. The Catholic Encyclopaedia is another source. There is a range of books on the Celtic church, a good one being The Celtic Alternative by Shirley Toulson.

blackspanielgallery on 05/13/2016

Interesting. How did you find the information of such a reclusive group?

frankbeswick on 05/04/2016

I am glad that you liked it. I loved the book, A Simplified Life, by Verena Schiller, she comes over as so well balanced and pleasant. When the time came for her to move back to a community she did so only partly out of her own medical necessity, but because she realized that by being on her own she would be placing a burden on those caring for her. She comes over as being very considerate and kind.

jptanabe on 05/04/2016

Great account of the hermit life. I do find it amusing that some found if impossible to remain isolated from people, because the people kept showing up! The idea of hearing only the music of nature is very appealing.

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