Unmoored Hermits

Many people choose to live in solitude—but outside of organized religion

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Anthony the Great, known as the father and founder of monasticism, fled to the Egyptian desert in AD 270 at 19 years old. He chose to live as an extreme ascetic, renouncing all pleasure of the senses from rich foods, sex, bathing, and anything tempting his flesh to take its ease. He wove reed baskets, sold in the local village, to buy basic necessities. His long fasts and prayers resulted in such great spiritual perfection that before he died in AD 356 at the age of 105, thousands of young monks and nuns had gathered to live near him, residing alone in wood huts or in small groups.

The Church’s bishops were busy dealing with the Roman state, but the Desert Fathers such as Anthony saw such collaboration as a compromise between “the things of God and the things of Caesar.” The hermits stubbornly believed mixing religion and politics could never produce a truly spiritual Christian society.

While we might find hermit an ancient word, many people even today devote their lives to discovering the hidden value of silence, solitude, and deep contemplation. If online resources for hermits are any indication (e.g., Hermitary.com), plenty of people respond to that spiritual call—but outside of organized religion.

The ordained eremitic lifestyle is rare except for a few Carthusians, Camaldolese, and other monks. But the eremitic spirit has survived in such literary luminaries as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Thoreau. “Not till we have lost the world,” wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves.”

In the 20th century, authors like Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor shared their reclusive insights from living alone and listening to God in their stillness. From his Trappist hermitage in the Gethsemane forest, Merton wrote, “Nothing can be expressed about solitude that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Elsewhere he wrote, “The true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself.” Richard Giannone, in Flannery O’Connor, Hermit Novelist (2010) writes, “O’Connor routinely used the Desert Fathers as models of resistance to culture and the foundation of an alternative spirituality… Her hermit life was made inevitable by her debilitating lupus, as she returned to her family’s farm at age 25 to live on her family’s 500 acre farm, Andalusia, and its 1,000 acres of woodland.”

The newly canonized French priest Charles de Foucauld, who spent 15 years living in the Sahara Desert, said that in such solitude “one empties completely the small house of one’s soul.” Padre Pio, the stigmatic miracle worker and mind reader, had made himself a little hut on his family’s farm where he lived the life of a hermit, there practicing mortifications, prayer, and fasting that he continued as a Franciscan friar until his death in 1968.

During our pandemic lockdowns, many people have been forced by their governments to live in quarantined isolation. This has led to negative effects in countless individuals, as involuntary isolation can lead to depression and mental illness. COVID lockdowns throughout the world have increased the number of solitary hermits, although for some people the difference between voluntary and involuntary isolation is impossible to judge from afar.

Australia’s ABC News reports (Feb. 16) that a million “shut-in” hermits are living in Japan right now. They’re called hikikomori — “pulling inward” — and they’re stung by their culture’s high-pressure lifestyle and restrictions. The majority are male, late teens and up. They have retreated to their bedrooms and “almost never emerge.” Media have called them “the lost generation.”

If only these unmoored hermits — lacking the one thing necessary — could encounter the word of God (probably online), then they could hear Jesus say, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). God’s word could make all the difference between these youth running from societal demands to running toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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