A hermit (from the Greek ἔρημος erēmos, signifying "desert," "uninhabited," hence "desert-dweller"; adjective: "eremitic") is a person who lives substantially in seclusion and/or isolation from society.
Originally the term was applied to a Christian who lives the eremitic life out of a religious conviction, namely the Desert Theology of the Old Testament. In the Christian tradition, the eremitic life was an early form of monastic living that preceded the cenobitic life in the monastery. The Rule of St Benedict lists hermits among four kinds of monks (Chapter 1). Modern Church law recognises consecrated hermits as members of the Consecrated Life.
Today, the term "hermit" is used loosely for anyone living a solitary life-style – including the misanthrope – and in religious contexts is sometimes assumed to be interchangeable with anchorite/anchoress (from the Greek ἀναχωρέω anachōreō, signifying "to withdraw," "to depart into the country outside the circumvallated city") and recluse.
The life of the Christian hermit, both in ancient and in modern times, is a life entirely given to the praise of God, love and, – through the hermit's penance and prayers – service to all humanity.
In common Christian tradition, the first known Christian hermit was the Egyptian Paul of Thebes (fl. 3rd century), although in the Middle Ages some Carmelite hermits claimed to trace their origin to Jewish hermits organized by Elijah. However, an earlier antecedent for Egyptian eremitism may have been the Syrian solitary or "son of the covenant" (Aramaic bar qəyāmā) who undertook special disciplines as a Christian. The best known of the very early hermits was Saint Anthony of Egypt (fl. fourth century) who is often called the "Father of Monasticism." Other well-known Christian hermits include Mary of Egypt, art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett, Macarius of Egypt, Simeon Stylites, Herman of Alaska, Thomas Merton, Sergius of Radonezh, Seraphim of Sarov, Charles de Foucauld, Gregory the Illuminator who brought the Christian faith to Armenia, and Stafford historian James Johnson.
Hermits often live in isolated cells or hermitages, whether a natural cave or a constructed dwelling, situated in the desert or the forest. The early Christian Desert Fathers wove baskets in exchange for bread. In medieval times hermits were also found within or near cities where they might earn a living as a gate keeper or ferryman.
From the Middle Ages down to modern times, eremitical monasticism has also been practiced within the context of religious orders in the Christian West. For example in the Roman Catholic Church the Carthusians and Camaldolese arrange their monasteries as clusters of hermitages where the monks live most of their day and most of their lives in solitary prayer and work, gathering only relatively briefly for communal prayer and only occasionally for community meals and recreation. The Cistercian, Trappist and Carmelite orders, which are essentially communal in nature, allow members who feel a calling to the eremitic life, after years living in the cenobium or community of the monastery, to move to a cell suitable as a hermitage on monastery grounds. This applies to both their monks and their nuns.
A vocation similar to the eremitic life is the anchoritic life, which was common in the Middle Ages but is almost unknown today. Anchorites and anchoresses lived the religious life in the solitude of an "anchorage," usually a small hut or "cell" built against a church. The door of anchorages tended to be bricked up in a special ceremony conducted by the local bishop after the anchorite had moved in. Medieval churches still exist that have a tiny window ("squint") built into the shared wall near the sanctuary to allow the anchorite to participate in the liturgy by listening to the service and to receive Holy communion. Another window led out into the street, enabling charitable neighbors to deliver food and other necessities.
One Anchorite who left a lasting impression on Christian spirituality is the English Anchoress Julian of Norwich. Saint Catherine of Siena, a tertiary of the Dominican Order and "solitary," is also a significant figure in the history of Catholic spirituality, as is the twentieth century poustinik Catherine de Hueck Doherty, foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate.
In our times, an increasing number of Christian faithful feel again a vocation to live the eremitic life, whether in the remote country side or in a city in stricter separation from the world, without having passed through the cenobium first. Bearing in mind that the meaning of the eremitic vocation is the Desert Theology of the Old Testament (i.e., the 40 years wandering in the desert that was meant to bring about a change of heart), it may be said that the desert of the urban hermit is that of their heart, purged through kenosis to be the dwelling place of God alone.
In the Roman Catholic Church today the institutes of consecrated life have their own regulations concerning those of their members who feel called by God to move from the life in community to the eremitic life, and have the permission of their monastic superior to do so. They technically remain a member of their religious order and thus under obedience to their superior.
In addition, in order to provide for those who feel a calling to the eremitic or anchoritic life but are not members of an institute of consecrated life, the Code of Canon Law (1983) legislates the consecrated life as follows:
§1 "Besides institutes of consecrated life the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.
§2 A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels" (i.e. chastity, religious poverty and obedience), "confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction." (Canon 603)
These instructions lay down certain requirements for those who feel a vocation to the kind of eremitic life that is recognized by the Church as one of the "other forms of consecrated life." They usually are referred to as "consecrated hermits."
Obviously, the norms of canon 603 do not apply to the many other Christian faithful who live alone and devote themselves to fervent prayer for the love of God without however feeling called by God to seek recognition of their prayerful solitary life from the Church by entering the consecrated life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 11 October 1992 (§§918-921) comments on the eremitic life as follows:
"From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. These the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved.
Bishops will always strive to discern new gifts of consecrated life granted to the Church by the Holy Spirit; the approval of new forms of consecrated life is reserved to the Apostolic See." (Cf. CIC, can. 605).
The Eremitic Life
"Without always professing the three evangelical counsels publicly, hermits "devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance." (Footnote: CIC, can. 603 §1)
"They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One."
Thus, Catholics called to hermit-style monasticism may live that vocation in an eremitically-oriented monastery or as a hermit within a cenobitical monastery, and in both cases do so under obedience to their monastic superior, or as a consecrated hermit under the canonical direction of their local bishop or his delegate.
The norms of the Roman Catholic Church for the consecrated eremitic and anchoritic life (cf. canon 603) do not include corporeal works of mercy. Nevertheless, every consecrated hermit is bound by the law of charity and therefore ought to respond generously, as his or her own circumstances permit, when faced with a specific need for corporeal works of mercy. However, since consecrated hermits – again, like every Christian – are also bound by the law of work, and therefore have to earn their living, they have to do so by any means locally available that is compatible with Christian teaching. Therefore (self-)employment in the care sector may be a work option for consecrated hermits so qualified, providing they can convince their bishop that this will not keep them from observing their obligations of the eremitic vocation in accordance with canon 603, under which they have made their vow.
In the Orthodox Church and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, however, hermits live a life not only of prayer but also of service to their community in the traditional Eastern Christian manner of the poustinik. The poustinik is a hermit available to all in need and at all times.
In the Eastern Christian churches, one traditional variation of the Christian eremitic life is the semi-eremitic life in a lavra or skete, exemplified historically in Scetis, a place in the Egyptian desert, and continued in various sketes today, such as in St Isaac of Syria Skete and several regions on Mount Athos.
From a religious point of view, the solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces worldly concerns and pleasures in order to come closer to the deity or deities they worship or revere. This practice appears also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. In the ascetic eremitic life, the hermit seeks solitude for meditation, contemplation, and prayer without the distractions of contact with human society, sex, or the need to maintain socially acceptable standards of cleanliness or dress. The ascetic discipline can also include a simplified diet and/or manual labor as a means of support.
Religious hermits are often sought out for spiritual advice and counsel and may eventually acquire so many disciples that they have no physical solitude at all. Examples include Anthony the Great, (c. 251–356), who attracted such a large body of followers after living alone over 20 years in the Egyptian desert that he is considered by both Catholics and the Orthodox to be the "Founder of Monasticism," and Siddhattha Gautama (b. 565 B.C.E.) Gautama Buddha, who, after living a grand and full life, then—having abandoned his family for a solitary quest for spiritual enlightenment—became the founder of Buddhism.
Diogenes the Cynic, an ancient Greek philosopher, led an ascetic life in a barrel. According to legend, when Alexander the Great came to him one day and offered to grant him a wish, Diogenes asked Alexander to step out of his sunlight.
In Medieval romances, the knight errant frequently encountered hermits on his quest; such a figure, generally a wise old man, would advise him. Knights searching for the Holy Grail, in particular, would learn the errors they had to repent of, and would have the significance of their encounters explained to them. Evil wizards would sometimes pose as hermits, to explain their presence in the wilds, and to lure heroes into a false sense of security. In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, both occurred: the knight on a quest met a good hermit, and the sorcerer Archimago took on such a pose.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his influential work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, created the character of the hermit Zarathustra (named after the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathushtra), who emerges from seclusion and run madly through the streets shouting "God is Dead!" to give voice to the author's own nihilistic philosophy Nietzschism that then spread.
In popular culture and film, references to hermits are still found. Tom Bombadil from the Lord of The Rings is a hermit. In Star Wars Episode IV (the original film), Ben Kenobi, was first introduced to the audience as an old hermit, often seen by most of the in-universe characters at their surroundings as a very dangerous, crazy wizard. Later in the story it was to be revealed that he went into exile for political reasons, although it also served him for spiritual training since he was a warrior monk in his youth, and that his first name was actually Obi-Wan.
In modern parlance, the term "hermit" tends to be applied to anyone living a life apart from the rest of society, regardless of their motivation.
During the Romantic period of the nineteenth century, some wealthy estate owners would pay imitation "hermits" to inhabit their properties, as living garden decorations.
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