EREMITISM is a form of monastic life characterized by solitariness. (The term derives from the Greek erēmos, "wilderness, uninhabited regions," whence comes the English eremite, "solitary.") In this type of life, the social dimension of human existence is totally or largely sacrificed to the primacy of religious experience. It is thus understandable that Christianity has traditionally regarded eremitism as the purest and most perfect form of a life consecrated to God. While other forms of monasticism or of the religious life have striven to bring religious experience to bear on human relationships (Western Christianity especially emphasizes external service), eremitism has always been purely contemplative in thrust. Hermits live only in order to cultivate their spiritual life in prayer, meditation, reading, silence, asceticism, manual work, and, perhaps, in intellectual pursuits. In eremitism, the celibacy characteristically practiced in monachism extends to the suppression of all social relationships. While Christian monks have always stressed charity in relationships within the monastic group and, in the Middle Ages especially, written treatises on Christian friendship, Buddhist monks have emphasized the necessity for freedom from every affective relationship that might hinder the achievement of enlightenment.
While isolation for a limited period of time is common in many religions, especially as part of a process of initiation or as a special time dedicated to prayer and reflection, eremitism as a permanent vocation or prolonged phase of asceticism is found only in those religions that grant monasticism an established and determinative role. The religions in question are salvation religions, whether in the sense of self-liberation or of redemption. In Buddhism, Jainism, and Christianity religiosity has a personal character as opposed to a merely societal character (religion as a series of beliefs and rites of a tribe, polis, or state). Buddhism, Jainism, and Manichaeism are essentially monastic religions, owing to the importance they attach to the pursuit of the self-liberation of the human being. Christian hermits, too, often went into the wilderness in hopes of finding there the answer to the all-absorbing question: "How can I attain salvation?"
However, the theme of personal salvation does not seem to be the deepest and most constant motive behind the eremitical vocation. The Ṣūfī mystics, as well as many Christian monks and nuns, have gone primarily in pursuit of union with God. Some of them, such as Teresa of Ávila or Thérèse of Lisieux, have consecrated their lives to interceding for the world. Monks who, like Thomas Merton, distance themselves even from their own monastery, do so not to assure their own salvation but rather to devote themselves to constant prayer. In the early Christian world it was commonly said that solitaries pursued an angelic life, because they wished to be, like the angels, always in the presence of God. It can be legitimately affirmed, then, that what really permits the birth of monasticism in general and of eremitism in particular is the desire to consecrate one's whole life to religious experience.
Historically, there have been two forms of eremitism. The more common form is that of the anchorite, a term derived from the Greek verb anachōrein, originally used to designate the act of draft dodging or tax evasion by fleeing to out-of-the-way places. In Hellenistic times, the word came to refer generally to those who moved far away from towns and particularly to sages who withdrew in order to devote themselves to contemplation. The less common type of eremitism is that of the recluse, who often remained in town but enclosed himself in a cell, communicating with the outside world only through a small window. In the Middle East during the early Christian period there were anchorites (male and female) who not only went into the wilderness but also became recluses, in a spirit of penitence. In their different ways both anchorites and recluses profess a life of solitude as a privileged situation for personal growth.
Eremitism in the Ancient World
Eremitism first appeared as a lifelong vocation in India among the numerous ascetics on the margin of Aryan society. The ascetics stood out from the general population by their long hair and distinctive dress, or by their wearing no clothes at all. Some lived in tombs, while others, the "ascetics of the forest," lived in the woods. From them is derived the most archaic strata of the Upaniṣads and the Ᾱraṇyakas, dating from the eighth century bce. The Aryan ascetics withdrew from society in order to pursue individual religious experiences that were fostered by a series of extraordinary renunciations. Their ascetical discipline was aimed to induce a state characterized by illumination and by the attainment of supernatural powers. The withdrawal of these ascetics seems to have involved a rejection of priestly mediation and can be interpreted as reflecting a crisis in a ritual system that had become somewhat fossilized.
The life of Siddhārtha Gautama, called the Buddha (the Enlightened One), established the paradigm for eremitism in Indian culture. After his conversion experience, Gautama determined to become a truth-seeker and placed himself under the direction of some famous sages. After this period of discipleship, Gautama withdrew to a lovely woodland grove, where he gave himself over to the practice of extreme asceticism and came to be surrounded by a small group of disciples. One day, Gautama observed to a certain adept that physical asceticism had not led him where he wished to go and that he had therefore given it up. Upon hearing this, his disciples, bound to the ascetical tradition, abandoned him. So Gautama remained alone, and alone he ultimately reached enlightenment. After attaining this fulfillment, the Buddha went forth to preach his message. His spiritual itinerary is an exemplary instance of the four stages (āśrama s) into which Hindu tradition divides the journey of a brahman : student, father of a family, forest dweller or solitary (vānaprasthin ), and, finally, renouncer (saṃnyāsin ), follower of an itinerant and often mendicant life. The withdrawal into solitude for a certain time is, thus, an integral part not only of Buddhist spirituality but of various forms of Hindu spirituality as well.
Withdrawal into solitude is likewise observable in other types of monastic movements that appeared in India from the sixth century bce onward. It may also be observed in Jainism, begun by Pārśvanātha in the eighth century bce and reformed by Mahāvīra in the sixth century bce. Jainism aims at a life of communion with nature in places removed from the social mainstream. Both of the original great heroes of Jainism lived largely eremitical lives. Gośāla, the founder of the Ājīvikas in the sixth century bce, began his ascetical life by withdrawing naked into the forest.
In the fourth century bce, the conquests of Alexander the Great in the Middle East and his expeditions into India brought the Greek world into contact with Hindu philosophy and religion. Pyrrho of Elis, who took part in the Indian expedition, displayed afterward a strong inclination toward tranquil solitude, so much so, in fact, that he rarely presented himself even to the members of his household. It is said that he did so because he had heard a Hindu admonish Anaxarchos that the latter could hardly pretend to be good, let alone instruct others, because he frequented the court. Philostratus and Hippolytus later praised the asceticism of the Hindu philosophers. From about the first century bce to the second century ce there arose in Hellenism the ideal of the sage as one who had achieved a personal contemplative relationship with the divine through the practice of solitude and certain ascetical techniques. Seneca recommended that Lucilius live a quiet and retiring life ("consistere et secum morari"). Thus the way was paved for the emergence of the figure of the hermit. Plutarch in the first century ce speaks of a famous solitary who lived on the shore of the Eritrean Sea and communicated with others only once a year. Lucian tells of a recluse who had remained for twenty-three years in a subterranean temple, where he was instructed by Isis. Around the second century ce the verb anachōrein and the noun anachōrēsis underwent an evolution of meaning and came to indicate a withdrawal from social commitments in order to pursue inner wisdom.
The influence of these tendencies is observable also in Hellenistic Judaism. In Palestine, the Essenes withdrew from the sway of normative Judaism and created their own community of salvation with a strict, ritualized life. In Egypt, the Therapeutae mentioned by Philo Judaeus followed a predominantly eremitical form of life. They confined themselves to individual cells, where they devoted themselves to asceticism and meditation, coming together only on the Sabbath for community worship.
Ascetical renunciation became central to Manichaeism, the religion founded in Babylonia by Mani in the third century ce. Asceticism became so important because Mani attributed the material world to the workings of the principle of evil. Because the material world was thus to be shunned, this doctrine implied almost necessarily a monastic conception of life. There seems to have been some Hindu influence on the group, for its members were divided into the elect (monks) and the "hearers" (laity); the latter received the same name as was given to the laity in Jainism. The elect professed a radical poverty and sexual continence, which some carried to the point of castration. Among the elect, many were itinerant ascetics, although some of them withdrew into solitude.
Primitive Christian Eremitism
Tertullian, the celebrated African writer, stated in the second century ce that among Christians there were no naked philosophers, brahmans, or forest dwellers, but that all lived in moderation among the rest of those devoted to family and public life (Apologeticum 42.1). A century later eremitism launched a veritable invasion of Christian churches. What, one may ask, had happened to bring about this apparent reversal?
The radical commitment that Jesus asked of his disciples, involving faith, conversion, and suffering, was lived by his first followers within the context of a prophetic mission organized around the announcement of the imminence of the kingdom of God. This mission necessarily led them to involve themselves with society, and especially with those on its margins. In contrast to John the Baptist and his followers, Jesus neither practiced asceticism as a preparation for the judgment of God nor had recourse to solitude, except in decisive moments requiring prayer and reflection. It is significant, then, that the first Christian ascetics frequently invoked, not the example of Jesus, but rather that of Elijah or of John the Baptist. Early on, a group of wandering prophets who preached the imminent return of the Son of humankind seem to have taken quite literally the recommendations of Jesus on the need to abandon all things (Didachē 11.8). Their asceticism developed in the context of a prophetic mission, sustained by their hope in the end of the present world.
Only at a later date did this radical discipleship transform into an asceticism aimed at personal perfection or salvation. This step from commitment as a prophet to pursuit of individual asceticism—both expressions of Christian radicalism—came about simultaneously with the step from the eschatological dualism of Jesus (the "already" and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God) to the static dualism of the Hellenistic world (the world above versus the world below, spirit and body). The number of ascetics seems to have increased considerably throughout the third century. While some practiced asceticism in the cities, numerous others built cells near towns or villages and committed themselves to prayer in an early attempt at the solitary life. There were a few cases of ascetics seeking a more total isolation in the desert. Eusebius relates that Narcissus, bishop of Jerusalem, weary of slanders against him and eager to embrace a philosophical life, retired to the wilderness around 212. The ecclesiastical writer Socrates mentions a certain Eutychianus, a hermit living in Asia Minor around 310.
But it was only toward the end of the third century in Egypt that Christian eremitism appeared in a definitive and exemplary manner. Once martyrdom, as an extreme test of fidelity to the gospel, ceased to occur and once the church with its bishops became recognized as part of the urban establishment, numerous men and some women fled to the solitude of the desert in search of God. There they defiantly faced the demons whom popular belief assigned to such solitary places. Thus arose a type of Christian life characterized by solitude, constant prayer, radical poverty, manual labor, and practices of mortification.
It should be noted that, since the time of Tertullian and Origen, the two great Christian writers of the third century, the idea of retreat to the desert had become emblematic of a new religious attitude. The gospel accounts of the time Jesus spent in the desert lent a profound significance to the biblical traditions of Israel's wanderings through the wilderness and the withdrawal of some of the Israelite prophets into solitude. Tertullian wrote to the Christian martyrs that their isolation from the rest of the world during their imprisonment might well engender the spiritual benefits that the desert or solitude had given the prophets and the apostles: a lively experience of the glory of God. Origen used the desert as a symbol of spiritual progress and also transformed it into an emblem of the solitude and peace that are necessary to encounter the word and wisdom of God. It is significant that the first translators of the Greek Bible into Latin coined the noun eremus ("desert"), which did not exist in profane Latin. Thus the desert, the eremus, had been converted into a symbol of a spiritual attitude, a reliving of certain incidents in the Christ event foreshadowed by the passage of Israel through the wilderness.
These precedents must be considered in any account of the origins of Christian eremitism. The first influential Christian eremite is Anthony, a Coptic Christian born around 250. Anthony was early converted to asceticism and then retired to the desert at about age thirty-five; he enclosed himself for the next twenty years in a small, ruined fortress. Athanasius describes this period of reclusion as the phase of Anthony's mystical initiation. At the end of this period, Anthony accepted a few disciples. Toward the end of his life, he withdrew alone to a place near the Gulf of Suez, although he continued to make periodic visits to some of his anchorite followers who dwelt nearby. He died in 356, his fame widespread. His biography, written a few years after his death by Athanasius and twice translated into Latin, enjoyed a remarkable success and inaugurated a new Christian literary genre. Jerome later used Athanasius's work as a model for his lives of Paul, Malchus, and Hilarion.
Very early on, even during the lifetime of Anthony, Egypt had a large number of anchorites. Paul of Thebes, the hero whose novelistic life was written by Jerome, lived as a solitary on Mount Colzim, near the Gulf of Suez. Amun of Nitria, who like Paul was a disciple of Anthony, began a colony of hermits in the Nitrian desert (today's Wadi el Natrun) to the east of the Nile Delta. There were also the two great hermits named Makarios: Makarios of Egypt and Makarios of Alexandria, both of whom died around 390. In the desert of Scete, forty miles beyond the Wadi el Natrun, lived the celebrated Arsenius (354–449), his contemporary Agathon (a disciple of the first abbot, Daniel), and later Isaias. The sayings of the principal solitaries were gathered into popular collections called Apophthegmata Patrum (lit., "sayings of the fathers," but referring specifically to the Desert Fathers). The collections were first set in alphabetical order according to author by compilers writing in Greek around 450. Not long after this an excellent collection was drawn up arranged according to subject matter.
There were as well three famous women who were desert solitaries, Theodora, Sarah, and Syncletica. From the beginning of Christian monasticism, there were anchoresses, although it is impossible to accurately assess their number. That the Apophthegmata Patrum include the sayings of some women, and that the lives of certain spiritual women were written, suggests that any apparent silence on women is most likely due to the fact that a relatively small number settled in the wilderness. One obvious reason for a relative dearth of anchoritic women would be the frequency with which bands of robbers and highwaymen attacked isolates in the desert; women were presumably in greater danger than men. It must be acknowledged, however, that the spirituality of the first Christian anchorites had a very masculine slant, for athletic and military terminology abounds in their biographies and writings. It is not surprising, then, that this quality influenced the anchoresses, who affirmed their spiritual masculinity. Sarah stated a number of times that although she was a woman as to her sex, she was not so in spirit and resolve. Syncletica also used terminology drawn from military life and athletic contests. The practice of some anchoresses of disguising themselves as men probably arose from their concern for personal security in a time and place that was extremely hazardous for all travelers.
The most celebrated anchoress was undoubtedly Mary of Egypt (344–421), who underwent a conversion while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and went to live in solitude on the other side of the Jordan River, where she spent the next forty-seven years. Her life, first alluded to by Cyril of Scythopolis in his sixth-century Life of Cyriacus, became a legend. Alexandra, a serving girl who enclosed herself in a funeral grotto, receives mention in Palladius's Historia Lausiaca. Another legendary figure is Theodora, a married woman who abandoned her husband and, fearing that she might be recognized by him if she entered a nunnery, decided to disguise herself as a man and managed to enter instead a monastery outside Alexandria. In time the monks accused her of being the father of a baby boy whom an unhappy young woman had left at her doorstep and expelled her from the community. She was obliged to live with the boy in the wilderness for seven years. After that time she was readmitted to the monastery, where she became a recluse in a cell apart from the rest. Syncletica (sixth century), too, withdrew to a tomb not far from Alexandria; she has the distinction of being the first Christian heroine to be the subject of a biography. Sarah lived a solitary life for some seventy years on the eastern branch of the Nile. The sayings of Theodora, Syncletica, and Sarah may be found in the Apophthegmata Patrum.
These anchorites and anchoresses were not the only Christians to practice the eremitical life. Alongside them, from the beginning, existed another group of solitaries: the recluses. The latter separated themselves from the world not by going to some far-off place but by enclosing or immuring themselves in cells. The great Anthony spent his first twenty years of solitude as a recluse. The famous John of Nicopolis (fourth century) lived in the same manner. Likewise, the solitaries of the Desert of Cells, east of the Nile near Cairo, preferred to live a life of withdrawal in their caves, which were "like hyenas' dens."
Anchorites and recluses held one basic attitude in common: a radical lack of interest in the world, that is, in human society and history. They called this attitude xenoteia (from Gr. xenos ), the condition of being a stranger, an alien, a passerby. Their disinterest was motivated by a desire for total self-commitment to God in contemplative quiet. The Christian anchorite was at the same time in pursuit of interior peace, which could be attained only through apatheia, or detachment from the passions. The experience of God in his mystical fullness was for the anchorite a return to the primordial condition of the human being. One could not return to this lost paradise except by way of a continual struggle with the demons that populate society, allusions to which appear in many personal accounts. The hermits often acquired a great analytical acuteness, yet numerous allusions to dreams and visions show some of the negative effects of a life of pure interiority. Although the dialectical orientation of human nature was safeguarded by the constant dialogue with God, the fact that this dialogue was almost completely interior may well have overintensified psychic activity.
It should be remembered that at the outset hermits could not count on the help of the Christian community. They were laypersons, who had separated themselves even from ecclesiastical society and were unable to participate in the common liturgy or the sacraments. The life of Anthony makes no allusion to the Eucharist. Soon the solitaries discovered the need to consult those who were more experienced and began to make visits to them, which began with a customary greeting, "Give me a word." They also felt the need of listening to the exhortations of the most famous holy men and of celebrating the liturgy together. This gave rise to colonies of hermits who gathered together on certain days of the week for the liturgy and conferences. Anchorites who periodically went to churches for worship (this became common at an early date) were allowed to bring the Eucharist with them to their retreats, so that they could receive daily Communion alone. From the beginning, however, it was the Bible that occupied the central position in the spiritual life of the Christian hermit. Even those who did not know how to read customarily memorized psalms and New Testament passages for recitation and meditation. They turned to the Bible whenever they needed a standard for conduct. Nevertheless, the anti-intellectualism of the majority led them to oppose all theological reflection on the sacred book.
Basil of Caesarea (329?–379) is the only father of the church who ruled out the possibility of a solitary life, basing his reasoning on both anthropological (the social dimension of the human being) and religious (the Christian vocation to communion) insights. Augustine also expressed reservations regarding the eremitical life, believing that Christian charity can never prescind from the neighbor. In general, however, the church continued to regard eremitism as the highest, though most difficult, vocation, one meant only for the strongest and best-formed personalities. The vast majority of the early anchorites were simple folk with little education. Many of those of Coptic origin were ignorant of Greek; indeed, many were illiterate. Early on, it became requisite that candidates for eremitism place themselves under the direction of an experienced anchorite before undertaking the solitary life. Later, once cenobitical monasticism (monks and nuns living in community) spread, a consensus arose that subjection to the discipline of a community was the best preparation for the eremitical life. The Palestinian laura, made up of a central monastery surrounded by a scattering of eremitical cells, is based on this idea. The Trullan Synod (692) decreed that future recluses should submit to at least three years of community discipline before going into reclusion. The canonists eventually extended this norm to all solitaries.
Although the first solitaries in Egypt and Syria were for the most part unlettered countryfolk, they developed a rich spiritual doctrine. Drawing on their own experience, their prayers and their temptations, they developed and orally transmitted the first art of spiritual direction, as well as the first analyses in Christianity of interior states. Toward the end of the fourth century, a number of scholars educated in Greek culture went to listen and learn from the solitaries. Rufinus of Aquileia, a famous sage at first admired but later attacked by Jerome, arrived in Egypt in 371. Evagrios of Pontus began his apprenticeship around 383. Palladius, the future historian of the desert, arrived there around 389. John Cassian spent ten years in Egypt toward the end of the fourth century. Later, he founded two monasteries, one for men and the other for women, in Marseilles. His Monastic Institutions (twelve books) and his Conferences exercised a lasting influence on Western spirituality.
Historical Development and Spread of Eremitism
Eremitism spread rapidly throughout the Middle East. It was also developing, contemporaneously and independently, in Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity, where it assumed some quite original forms. Some eremites, the Dendrites, lived in trees or in hollow tree trunks; others lived always in the open air, either on a rocky height or in groves, while still others lived in huts. The celebrated Simeon (390?–459) mounted a pillar in order to escape the importunities of people who sought his prayers, inspiring numerous imitators (the Stylites). There were a great number of recluses who, like James and Sisinnius, dwelt in tombs or, like Thalalaeus, in hovels with roofs built so low that it was impossible to stand inside. Marana and Cyriaca loaded themselves with heavy chains. All the hermits practiced great mortifications. Some of their actions and words seem inspired by a Manichaean worldview, while others resemble the feats attributed to the Indian fakirs. Toward the middle of the fourth century, many hermits lived in the mountains near Nisibus, on Mount Gaugal in Mesopotamia, and in the mountainous region around Antioch. The origins of eremitism in Palestine are unknown; it is known only that around 330 Hilarion began a form of eremitism similar to that of the Egyptian anchorites. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, hermits were very common in Palestine. Around 390, the well-publicized pilgrim Egeria found them nearly everywhere.
In the West, the Latin translation of the life of Anthony seems to have given rise not only to numerous admirers but also to some imitators. Already in the second half of the fourth century, numerous hermitages appeared on the islands and islets surrounding Italy (Gallinaria, Noli, Montecristo), and a colony of Syrian hermits settled near Spoleto. By his own example Eusebius of Vercelli gave rise to a group in the mountains of Oropa. Somewhat later, there were hermitages on the hills about Rome. Ascetics had lived in France since the second half of the second century. One of the early martyrs of Lyon and Vienne had sustained himself on bread and water. But it was Martin of Tours (316?–397) who truly propagated eremitism in Gaul. His life, written by Sulpicius Severus, contributed effectively to the movement. Converted to the monastic life in Milan, Martin underwent his first anchoritic experience on the island of Gallinaria and later settled at Ligugé. There a number of disciples established their cells near his. Made bishop of Tours in 371 by popular acclamation, he alternated the exercise of his pastoral office with the life of a hermit, and in these solitary periods he was again joined by numerous disciples.
Between the fifth and eighth centuries, hermits abounded in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In Spain, however, solitaries were not established until the sixth century. The bishops of the Iberian Peninsula took a dim view of asceticism as a result of their struggle with the ascetic rigorism of the monk Priscillian (340?–385) and his followers, who are said to have felt the greatest scorn for those Christians who would not embrace their austerities.
In the Eastern churches, eremitism has always enjoyed great prestige, although the spread of monachism in community (cenobitism) considerably reduced the number. Periodic reactions against cenobitism, in part inspired by Basil of Caesarea, have promoted a type of monastic life focused on contemplative quiet and personal prayer, rather than on liturgical worship. Among the proponents of hesychasm (cultivators of inner peace, or hēsuchia ) were the Sinaitic school of the seventh century and Symeon the New Theologian (949?–1022). The laura of Mount Athos was founded in 963 by Athanasius, although solitaries had already been living on the mountain. Another famous laura is the Monastery of Saint John, founded in 1068 on the island of Patmos. Both still exist today. At almost the same time, monachism was introduced into Russia by Anthony of Kiev, who had formerly been a monk at Mount Athos. When he returned to Russia, he chose as his dwelling a cave on the side of a hill that faced the city of Kiev. Numerous disciples joined him there, thus giving rise to the Pecherskaia Laura, the Monastery of the Caves. Sergii of Radonezh (1314–1392), saint-protector of Moscow and all Russia, spent several years in complete solitude. Nil Sorskii (1433?–1508) spent a great part of his life in complete solitude, developing his version of the hesychasm he had learned during a stay at Mount Athos. Cornelius of Komel shared his love of poverty and solitude. In the nineteenth century the eremitic ideal held a strong attraction for a significant group of Russian personages who spent the last stages of their lives in solitude. From this time date Feofan the Recluse (1815–1894), translator of the Philokalia, who remained in strict enclosure from 1872 until his death, and Serafim of Sarov (1759–1833).
The Maronite church, founded by the Syrian monk Maron (fourth century), has always professed a particular devotion to monachism. Among the Maronites, too, has arisen the practice of solitaries situating themselves in the neighborhood of its monasteries. Two Maronite hermits, the brothers Michael and Sergius ar-Rizzi, became patriarchs toward the end of the sixteenth century. The last illustrious example of this tradition is Charbel Maklouf, a popular thaumaturge of the nineteenth century.
In the West, eremites were always less numerous than in the Middle East. The teaching of Augustine on the central value of fraternal communion in the service of Christ, the preference of John Cassian for cenobitism, and, above all, the gradual conquest of the West by the Rule of Saint Benedict all converged to impose community monasticism as the common form. Nevertheless, even in the European West there have always been hermits. The fact that the councils of Vannes (463), Agde (506), and Toledo VI (638) all gave rules for recluses indicates that they were not a rare phenomenon. In the days of the French queen and saint Radegunda (518–587), a liturgical ceremony celebrated the entry of recluses into their cells. Grimlac, a tenth-century hermit of Lorraine, wrote the first regula solitariorum known in the West. Further such rules were written in the twelfth century by Ethelred of York and, for the recluses of Cluny, by Peter the Venerable. Even in a community as well organized as that of Cluny, some monks were permitted to go into reclusion and separate themselves from community life after a certain number of years. The same practice was in effect in the Cistercian monasteries, despite the communitarian spirituality that had developed at Cïteaux.
These developments were varied manifestations of a tendency toward solitude that had been growing since the tenth century. The early eleventh century saw the founding in Italy of the monastic congregations of Fuente Avellana by Peter Damian and of Camaldoli by Romuald. These monastic congregations were made up of groups of mutually independent hermitages or monasteries, or of a monastery and a colony of hermitages united under the prior of the colony. Silence and individual solitude predominated. (These congregations were joined in 1569.) In 1084, Bruno of Cologne settled in Chartreuse, France, and established there a monastery where monks lived separately in small hermitages situated around a cloister and met only for liturgical prayer in the church. Around 1090, Stephen of Muret founded the Order of Hermits of Grandmont at Haute-Vienne, France. In a short time the order had spread widely. Small groups of solitaries began to multiply in Italy and became more common in the west of France during the twelfth century. Others appeared in Italy in the thirteenth century. Francis of Assisi, for example, was strongly attracted to the eremitical life and wrote a rule for it and for his disciples.
But there were also instances of an opposite phenomenon—groups of hermits who gave rise to orders characterized by a more communal way of life. The Carmelite order, for example, was started by hermits from the West who settled at Mount Carmel in Palestine during the twelfth century; as the order spread in the West it evolved into a conventual order. Something similar happened to the Servites, founded near Florence, and to the Hermits of Saint Augustine, an order formed by the coming together of various eremitic and semi-eremitic Italian groups.
Alongside the eremitic life organized within an institutional framework, the individual eremitic life has persisted sporadically. Instances from twelfth-century England include the solitaries Henry, Caradoc, Wilfrid, and Godric. Richard Rolle de Hampole, a hermit and director of recluses, was a spiritual master and esteemed writer of the fourteenth century. The most celebrated English anchoress was Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love remains a spiritual classic. In fourteenth-century Spain, John de la Pena was the founder of a colony of hermitages. In Switzerland, there is the celebrated case of Nicholas of Flüe (1417–1487), a layman who at the age of fifty left his wife and children to go into solitude, where he spent the last twenty years of his life. "Bruder Klaus," as he is affectionately known in Switzerland, was canonized in 1947 and is venerated there by both Catholics and Protestants because of the ecumenical guidance he gave from his hermitage.
In sixteenth-century Spain, the noblewoman Catalina of Cardona escaped from the ducal palace to take refuge as a hermitess on the banks of the river Júcar. Later she founded a convent of Carmelite nuns and then spent the rest of her life in a nearby cave. In the fifteenth century an unnamed woman supposedly lived disguised as a friar in the Franciscan hermitage of the Carceri near Assisi. Another woman, who died around 1225, lived in the same manner in Burgundy. Perhaps these women were imitating the legend of the desert eremite Theodora. Some scholars have suspected that the stories of these women are fictional legends that arose in the exclusively masculine environment of the monastery, where the presence of a woman disguised as a monk could easily have been felt as a threat to the monastic vocation. Another type of mitigated feminine eremitism was initiated by Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) under the influence of the primitive ideal of the monastery of Mount Carmel and the example of her confessor and spiritual adviser, Peter of Alcántara (1499–1562), who built a separate hut for himself in the monastery garden. Something similar happened in a number of Poor Clare convents in Spain, again under the influence of Peter of Alcántara.
In the seventeenth century, there was a new flowering of eremitical spirituality. New editions of various writings of the Desert Fathers, as well as numerous paintings of the saints Anthony and Jerome and the penitent Mary Magdalene, reflect this interest. Notable among other eremitical foundations in Spain at the time was the hillside colony at Cordova, which continued to exist until the mid-twentieth century. In the eighteenth century there were still some hermits living in the vicinity of Rome, and some new groupings of hermits arose in Germany. In the history of Christian eremitism in the West, the nineteenth century was one of the most desolate periods. Significantly, in the 1917 Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic church, pure eremitism disappeared as an officially recognized form of monastic life because of the code's insistence on community life as an essential element of all monastic life.
In contrast, the twentieth century witnessed a reflourishing of the eremitical life, beginning with the withdrawal of Charles-Eugène Foucauld (1858–1916), a French cavalry officer, to the Sahara. He spent the last fifteen years of his life as a hermit. John C. Hawes (d. 1956), an Anglican missionary who later joined the Roman Catholic church, spent the last years of his life as a hermit on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Foundations of eremitical groups have been established in Germany, France, and Canada. The phenomenon seems to have been particularly intense in the United States. A strong current of mystical spirituality, together with a certain disenchantment with the life of many apostolic communities, has led a certain number of religious, especially women, to seek the solitary life. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) influenced this movement to a great extent. After spending twenty years at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in an atmosphere combining total silence and intense group life, Merton arrived at a paradoxical state: He had a keen and very open awareness of a pressing need for dialogue with the contemporary world, yet he withdrew for some time into profound solitude. In 1963, he obtained permission to withdraw periodically to a small hut on a hillside near the abbey. In October 1964, thanks to his efforts, a meeting of Trappist abbots modified the order's official attitude toward eremitism. The order now regards eremitism as a possible option for monks who have spent a certain number of years in community. As he grew older, Merton's recourse to solitude became increasingly continuous. At present, a certain number of Trappists follow the eremitical life.
The Church of England has also witnessed a revival of one of its ancient traditions, in a number of women solitaries. Prayer and silence predominate in the first purely contemplative Anglican community, the Sisters of the Love of God, founded by Father Hollings in 1906. In response to this strong trend the Roman Catholic church revised its official attitude toward eremitism, as stated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The new code (canon 603) officially recognizes the eremitical state, even among those who do not belong to any monastic institute.
Eremitism in Islam
In Islam, eremitism is regarded as an exceptional type of life. In general, the religious life is lived either in the bosom of the family or in a community made up of a master and a number of disciples. However, a radical form of Sufism is found among itinerant monks, who express their estrangement from the world in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Hindu or Syrian practitioners of pilgrimage. Many Ṣūfīs, even if they do not fully profess this type of life, spend a certain number of years traveling throughout the Muslim world in search of a spiritual master. The ideal of the Muslim spiritual masters is "solitude in the midst of the multitude" (kalwat dar anjuman ), that is, a state of remaining habitually in the presence of God without being touched by the tumult of one's surroundings. As means for achieving this state spiritual masters recommend detachment, silence, and interior peace. Some Ṣūfī orders insist on both material and spiritual withdrawal or retreat.
Nevertheless, a commitment to serving God while remaining in his presence has led more than a few Muslim spiritual adepts to seek material solitude. In contradistinction to the khalwah ("retreat," i.e., the house of a man or woman of God), rābiṭah designates an isolated dwelling for a person committed to the cultivation of his or her spiritual life, that is, a hermitage. Ibn al-ʿArabī tells of an Andalusian mystic, Abū Yaḥyā al-Sunhājī, who often traveled along the coast looking for solitary places in which he could live. He also tells of a holy woman of Seville who lived in a hut built so low to the ground that she could hardly stand up straight within it. Although Muslims have always professed a lively devotion toward these servants of God, there has always been also a certain opposition to what is regarded as an extreme way of life. This ambivalence is expressed in the following story. One day, a Ṣūfī who lived in a city received a visit from a pilgrim who brought him greetings from a man who had fled to the mountains. The Ṣūfī replied, "A person should live with God in the bazaar, not in the mountains" (Javad Nurbakhash, Masters of the Path, New York, 1980, p. 80).
Eremitism and Communion
Eremitism in its pure form is beset with a few serious difficulties, because the solitary life projects an image of spirituality exclusively in terms of interiority, an image involving individual prayer or meditation, intense inner struggles, and so on. What role does the believing community play in this conception of spirituality? Not surprisingly, the Buddha provided certain community horizons for the individual search for salvation in order to mitigate the extremes of ascetic traditions of his day. Nor is it surprising that many Muslim teachers note that materially suppressing outward "noise" is far less important than remaining open to inner silence, even amid the bustle of the marketplace. Pure eremitism encounters insuperable objections in relation to the Christian concept of community as the vehicle of salvation. What role do the sacraments play in such a scheme? Are rites of all sorts only for "beginners," with the more developed not in need of such props? It is easy to discern in these questions a potential for Gnostic aberrations, such as were possible in the context of the total isolation of the primitive Christian anchorites. Understandably, total and sustained isolation soon disappeared in Christianity, and the eremitical life became limited to colonies or lauras, where adherents listened to the word and participated in the sacraments. Today Christian churches would not accept any form of total isolation.
In reality, the difficulties come not only from the communitarian vocation of the believer but also from the basic social orientation of human beings. People need others, with both their experience and their limitations, in order to grow. After nine years of austere solitude, Pachomius (290?–346) reacted angrily to a slight disagreement. Seven years of fasts and vigils had not taught him patience. Here, for the first time in the history of Christian monasticism, interpersonal relationship appears as a form of mutual purification. Dorotheus of Gaza (sixth century) affirmed: "The cell exalts us, the neighbor puts us to the test." The praxis of charity shows whether personal progress has been real or illusory, but interpersonal relationships are also a source of enrichment. Dorotheus repeats a traditional saying when he states, "To stay in one's cell is one half, and to go and see the elders is the other half."
Eremitism and Human Solidarity
The quest for personal salvation, carried out in a type of life withdrawn from society and history, does not seem to leave room for solidarity with the rest of humanity. Today, when human communion and interdependence are so strongly felt, eremitism might seem like little more than a form of solitary egoism, giving rise to serious doubts as to its basic morality. The Buddhist vision of history as pure illusion presents a different perspective. From the Buddhist point of view, no good results from immersing oneself in this illusion, in this flux of sorrows and joys. On the contrary, one would do better to put oneself beyond the contingent and illusory, thus giving others the testimony of one's victory and wisdom. It is significant that in the life of the Buddha, as well as in the Hindu tradition generally, a phase of itinerant monasticism follows the period of eremitism.
Christian anchorites, too, often consider themselves alien travelers who cannot afford to be concerned with earthly affairs. But Christian eremitism constantly encounters a serious difficulty. If the transcendent God of the Bible reveals himself in the often tortuous and painful history of the human race, can any Christian turn away from history in order to encounter God? Would this God really be the God of the Bible, or would he not be some remote god encountered only in a flight from the world? Many Christian anchorites reveal the tensive pull of this implicit dualism. Nevertheless, their deep sense of being pilgrims and exiles has not prevented many of them from feeling and identifying with the problems of their contemporaries. Athanasius left his solitude and went to Alexandria in order to defend the orthodox cause against the Arians. The church meant more to him than a quest for pure interiority. Other solitaries sold their produce at market, bought what they needed for survival, and distributed among the poor any surplus before returning to their hermitages. Anthony worked not only for his maintenance but also for the needy. Poemen recommended that the brethren work as much as possible so that they could give alms.
A famous saying of Evagrios of Pontus is often quoted: "The monk lives separate from all and united to all." Significantly, he places this saying in the context of a group of sayings that stress the solitary's communion with other human beings, rejoicing in their joys, seeing God and himself in them. This meant not simply that the solitary, in finding God, finds all good things, rather that through solitude he learns to see God in his neighbor. Peter Damian explains that hermits, although they celebrate the Eucharist alone, should always use the greeting "The Lord be with you," because the solitude of the hermit is a solitudo pluralis, a corporate solitude, and his cell is a miniature church. The whole church is present in the solitary, and the solitary is most present to the whole church. Teresa of Ávila would invite her daughters to pray for the divided church and to respond to the division among Christians (of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation) by intensifying their own fidelity to the gospel.
In the present era Thomas Merton has exemplified the possible ambiguity latent in the relationship between the hermit and the exterior world. Merton, who desired to devote his life to prayer in solitude, regarded the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani as "the only real city in America" (Secular Journal, New York, 1959, p. 183). For years, his life involved total silence (the monks communicated their needs only by signs), common and individual prayer, and agricultural work. His first writings reflect an elitist view of contemplative monachism and a negative view of the secular milieu. In Seeds of Contemplation (1949) he said that whoever wanted to develop the interior life had no recourse other than to withdraw, to shun theaters, television, and the news media, and to retreat periodically from the city. In New Seeds of Contemplation (1979), however, he wrote that "solitude is not separation" and revealed total openness to the world. More paradoxically, during these years of growing openness he increasingly distanced himself from his community, becoming a virtual hermit.
General information on eremitism can be found in most encyclopedia articles on monasticism; see, for example, "Mönchtum," in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 4 (Tübingen, 1960); "Monachismo," in Enciclopedia delle religioni, vol. 4 (Florence, 1972); and "Monasticism," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 12 (Chicago, 1982). On eremitism in Buddhism and Hinduism, see A. S. Geden's "Monasticism, Buddhist" and "Monasticism, Hindu" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1915). For the Hellenic tradition, see A. J. Festugière's Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkeley, 1954). On Christian eremitism, see Clément Lialine and Pierre Doyère's "Eremitisme," in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité, vol. 4 (Paris, 1960); Jean Leclercq's "Eremus et eremita," Collectanae Ordinis Cisterciensium Reformatorum (Rome) 25 (1963): 8–30; and Louis Bouyer and others' A History of Christian Spirituality, 3 vols. (New York, 1963–1969). On Muslim practices, see A. J. Wensink's "Rahbaniya" and "Rahib" in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1974) and Hermann Landolt's "Khalwa" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4 (Leiden, 1978); see also René Brunel's Le monachisme errant dans l'Islam (Paris, 1955) and J. Spencer Trimingham's The Sufi Orders in Islam (New York, 1971).
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"Eremitism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eremitism
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