Revealing the Recluse: The Sad and Secret Lives of Hermits
The word “hermit” often elicits thoughts of men with long, scraggly hair and beards, eyes lined with wrinkles and filled with wisdom, and clothes a bit torn and dirty but otherwise, no worse for wear. Often, images of St. Jerome and St. Anthony come to mind, or the exiled Socrates—even Henry Thoreau may qualify for a period of his life. One might even think of a hermit crab. Interestingly enough, the latter is the most accurate description of who and what a hermit primarily is. In a nutshell, a hermit is someone who intentionally isolates him/herself.
The stereotypical hermit ( public domain )
A Life of Religious Seclusion
Under most circumstances, one turns the life of a hermit for religious reasons. For example, off the coast of Ireland is an island called Skellig Michael. Archaeology has revealed numerous naturally carved caves and man-made huts—many which provide evidence of hermitage life. Further, early medieval texts discuss Skellig Michael (perhaps in not quite so obvious words), as a place where those looking for religious seclusion often venture.
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The Hermits Cave (The Hermitage) in Hermits Wood next to the village of Dale Abbey In Derbyshire. The wood contains the Hermitage which was made around 1130 AD by a Derby Baker called Cornelius who had a vision to worhip God here at Deepdale; as the area was formely known. He dug the cave into the hillside and lived there for about 20 years ( CC by SA 2.0 )
Skellig Michael is not the only location with a longstanding history of solitary contemplators. In fact, the tradition of living as a hermit stretches back far before Christianity arrived in Britain, and long before the practice became associated with religion. In Asia, the term “hermit” was not associated with religion immediately. The steretype today indicates there is often a correlation between the two ideas, however, this is a relatively recent perspective—especially in China. Ancient Chinese hermits were simple people who felt they were living in a world of corruption, and decided they had the choice to separate themselves from such a society. While early hermits from Japan were more spiritually influenced than their western counterparts, these folk fall into the category of wandering hermits, rather than recluses. Consider the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus of Nazareth: the wanderer offering reform and redemption. These early Japanese hermits functioned in a similar fashion.
Byzantine Hermits: Isolation in Public
There is no correct location in which one has to go to join the life of the hermits. The only “qualification”, if it may even be called that, is to be completely isolated from every day, regular life. While “hermitages” and “recluse societies” did exist—locations specifically for those who wanted to live a life dedicated in every aspect to religion only—they were not the “right” place to go. In fact, these locations could be argued as somewhat ironic notion; yet they were no less valid. Similarly, in the Byzantine Empire, the life of a hermit meant living in isolation in public. The tradition, referred to as “climbing a pole” enabled one to isolate his/herself by height, partaking in an existence of spiritual exclusion where all could see. Thus, the location of the hermit mattered far less than the hermit’s exclusion from regular society. Among the like and unlike, one maintained the title “hermit” if that one “rule” was followed.
Byzantine hermit Simeon Stylites sits on top of a pillar ( public domain )
The Sad Life of a Child Hermit
In the medieval period, the hermitages and recluse societies were often populated by men or women who had been “gifted” to the church as children, called oblates. It was rather common, as a matter of fact, for the wealthy to do so; ironically, those children were then metaphorically imprisoned within the church. Texts dictate that a room was built in the wall, and the child “bricked” inside with an older caretaker. Essentially, the child was traded out of a life of luxury for one of strict rules and isolation by his/her parents. In most cases, the child could not or did not attempt to flee their situation. One of the only ones who did, Hildegard von Bingen, went on to continue her religious teachings in society.