I once thought of hermits as shaggy recluses notable mainly for their self-obsession and dearth of social skills—people like the Unabomber. Thomas Merton corrected my misconception. "To be really mad, you need other people," he explained. "When you are by yourself you soon get tired of your craziness. It is too exhausting."
A recent book by Peter France, Hermits, has helped to fill in the picture. France gave up a high-profile career with the bbc to lead a contemplative life on a Greek island. He did so not as an act of sacrifice, rather as a quest for the wisdom available only through a life of solitude. Living apart from the press of popular opinion "confers insights not available to society," France concluded.
Saint Anthony of Egypt, the famous Desert Father, chose the hermitic life in deliberate contrast to his upper-crust upbringing. After 20 years locked away, not seeing another human face, Anthony emerged healthy, balanced, and full of sage advice. From then on he alternated between solo retreats and pastoral visits. France likens the pattern to that of scientists who work alone in search of cures for deadly diseases.
You cannot read about hermits, of course, without encountering strangeness. One monk lusted after a beautiful woman. When she died he took his tunic to her tomb and used it to dry the pus from her corpse. Keeping the smell close to him in his cell, he reminded himself, "This is what you lust after—take your fill."
Some monks competed in a kind of ascetic Olympics, testing how long they could go without food, water, or sleep. These, too, had a method to their madness: their privations caused so much suffering that they left no mental void for carnal thoughts to fill.
France relates other stories that cast a different light on these eremites. When one brother bragged about his dietary discipline, his spiritual director replied, "Don't tell me, my child, that you've spent 30 years without eating meat. But tell me the truth: How many days have you spent without speaking ill of your brother? Without judging your neighbour? Without letting useless words pass your lips?"
The thirst for solitude seems to increase whenever society is in a state of turmoil. Jewish Essenes retreated into the desert in Jesus' day; the Buddha withdrew in order to purge himself of social illusions; the Hindu Gandhi observed a regimen of strict silence on Mondays, a practice he would not interrupt even for meetings with the king of England.
Solitude rips off all masks and disguises and breaks needless dependence on material goods. Henry David Thoreau perfected a peculiar American blend of asceticism, love of nature, and self-reliance. A friend once remarked that Thoreau could get more out of 10 minutes with a chickadee than most men could get out of a night with Cleopatra. Thoreau insisted, "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English landed gentry hired "ornamental hermits." Recognizing the value of solitude but unwilling to endure its rigors, the wealthy ensconced these surrogates in little hermitages in their fancy gardens. If you can't devote yourself to a life of simplicity and prayer, why not pay somebody to do it for you?
Thomas Merton was the best apologist for the life of solitude in our century. He viewed life in community as the real sacrifice and made constant appeals for the privilege of solitude, a wish finally granted him after 24 years. Merton longed to join those "men on this miserable, noisy, cruel earth who tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude, who dwelt in forgotten mountain cells, in secluded monasteries, where the news and desires and appetites and conflicts of the world no longer reached them." Nevertheless, he insisted that "the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other men."
Merton proved that a life of solitude need not lead to isolation or irrelevance. Has our century known a more acute observer of politics, culture, and religion than this monk who rarely spoke and rarely left the grounds of his monastery?
It surprises me that, amid the moral upheaval of our waning century, the church has not responded again with a movement toward solitude. Elijah, Moses, and Jacob met God alone. The apostle Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself escaped to the wilderness for spiritual nourishment.
Relevance, we have surely mastered. The Web pages of religious organizations are technically advanced. New Christian music groups spring up in response to the slightest cultural tremor. What would happen if we sought a little irrelevance?
What if every Christian took a two-hour nature walk each weekend, without speaking? Or if, like Gandhi, we observed a day of silence. He chose Monday; what if we agreed to maintain silence after church on Sunday? More radical still, what if we silenced all Sunday sporting events on television and radio?
I had best stop. As the hermits remind us, these spiritual disciplines can get out of control.
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