As we remain in lockdown, I am missing the common social interactions I used to take for granted. I miss being able to visit people at home, especially when there is a pastoral need. I miss meeting people for lunch, or seeing them at church. Some of my need for social interaction is met via the telephone and internet – drinks at 5 pm over Zoom, anyone? – but living in our bunkers and communicating remotely doesn’t have the same appeal as a genuine face to face encounter.
However, that’s not the whole story. There is now more time for reading, reflection and prayer. I know that some people have enjoyed the enforced isolation and the freedom it has brought from the busy-ness of much of modern life. I wonder if God is using the current crisis to make people to take their prayer life more seriously? It brings to mind a class of people the Church hardly ever mentions, but who have often been pivotal figures in the Church’s history and growth.
These are the hermits. They are people who have willingly chosen to remove themselves from society in order to live a solitary life devoted to prayer. Christian hermits follow a tradition already established in Judaism and other religions, including Chinese Taoism (6th century BC) Hinduism in the first century BC, (the Upanishads.) In our Christian story, the first hermit is John the Baptist, who famously lived as an ascetic in the deserts of Judea.
What spurs someone to leave society and seek the solitary life? A well-known example is St Anthony, the son of wealthy Christian parents, who left a life of material comfort to live simply as a hermit in the desert. Anthony heard the words of Jesus, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21) and was prompted to radically change his life. He lived alone for twenty years in a deserted fort on the east bank of the Nile, about fifty miles south of Memphis, living on bread and water and fasting regularly. Eventually others followed his example and Anthony organized them into a loose community which would meet every Sunday for worship. These became known as the Desert Fathers, and St Anthony is known as the father of Western monasticism.
Hermits seek a life of spiritual perfection. Without the distractions of everyday life and the pursuit of wealth, family and honor, they are free to offer their lives completely to God. Hermits discovered that the goals of a solitary life – closer attachment to God and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit – depended on prayer and fasting, along with the subduing of the passions, such as anger, lust, or jealousy. When the soul is freed from worldly distractions and desires, there can be closer communion with God in body, soul, mind and spirit.
Christian hermits share some common ground with members of other religions, such as the Islamic Sufi mystics, and indeed in the East the holy men and women are generally held in higher esteem than in our Western Church. We sometimes forget how important the monastic tradition has been to our Christian history, as a way of preserving our faith from the not always benign influence of the world. When Christian culture is compromised with its association with secular and political culture, as is often the case, a purer strain is often to be found in the world’s remote monasteries and convents. At various points in its history, the Church has owed its survival and growth to the existence of these prayerful communities of men and women who glorify God by their humble lives of poverty, chastity and obedience.
There have been hermits in every age, including many impressive examples in the Eastern Orthodox church, including St Sergius, St Seraphim of Sarov and St Silouan. In the twentieth century, perhaps the most well known hermit was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote extensively about his calling and who struggled, not always successfully, to meet the demands of the solitary life.
The rewards of the hermit life are immeasurable, but to understand it you will need to experience it first hand yourself. Retreat centers and monasteries throughout the country offer an opportunity to experience hermit life and with it, a taste of another way of life.
Hermits have left us with a treasury of wisdom, and so I will finish with some sayings of the Desert Fathers, to give a flavor of the hermit life. For a start, they cautioned against fleeing to the desert simply to escape other people: the monk Abbas Lucius once said, “If you haven’t first conducted yourself well among men, you won’t conduct yourself well in solitude.”
The hermits extolled the virtue of silence: Abbas Diadochus said, “Just as if you leave open the door of the public baths the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of the person who talks a lot escapes the open door of the voice. This is why silence is a good thing; it’s nothing less than the mother of wise thoughts.”
The greatest spiritual sin is pride, which can unwittingly cause the fall of a righteous person. Isidorus the Preacher said, “If you practice your asceticism according to the rules, be careful, when you are fasting, not to get above yourself. If you find yourself feeling proud of your self-denial – eat meat immediately. It is far better to eat meat than to have inflated ideas about yourself.”
Hermits who are steeped in prayer also tend to be practical. There is a story about St John Colobos the Dwarf, who one day said to his brother, “I would like to be carefree like the angels who do not work but serve God unceasingly.” And he threw off his cloak and went into the desert. A week later he came back to his brother and knocked at the door. “Who are you?” “I am John, your brother.” “John has become an angel.” He replied, “and no longer works with men.” And though he cried out, his brother did not let him in until he had fretted outside all night. Then he opened the door saying, “You are a man and you must work to eat.” John, having been taught discernment, made a bow saying: “Forgive me.”
Have a blessed Eastertide,