Dear Fr John Flader, there is a woman in our parish who has been consecrated as a hermit. I thought hermits lived in the countryside on their own. Is this something new in the church?
The tradition of hermits living a life of holiness on their own goes back to the early centuries. The word “hermit,” by the way, comes from the Greek eremos, meaning wilderness or an isolated place. Hermits were also sometimes called anchorites, meaning to withdraw.
In the early centuries some Christians, inspired by Old Testament figures like the prophet Elijah and later St John the Baptist, desired to live a life apart from the community, and so they withdrew to the desert or countryside where they could live a life of intense prayer and penance.
The first well-known hermit was St Paul of Thebes, also called St Paul the first hermit. He was born in 227AD in Egypt and died around 341AD, having lived some 113 years. He lived alone from the age of sixteen.
Another Egyptian hermit from that time was St Anthony the Great, or St Anthony Abbott (251-356), known especially through his biography written by St Athanasius. He too lived to be more than 100.
While Egypt was the place where hermits first began in large numbers, their way of life soon spread to Palestine, the Sinai peninsula, Syria and Asia Minor. The eremitic life also spread to the West, beginning in the fourth century.
Hermits at that time usually lived in isolated cells, or hermitages, in the desert or forest. Later, some of them came to live together in monasteries following a common rule.
Throughout the centuries there have always been people who followed this way of life. In addition, some of the monastic orders, such as the Carthusians and Trappists, allow for some of the monks to live outside the monastery within the grounds under the rule of their superior.
Coming back to the present, Canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law provides for the vocation of hermits in the following terms:
“§1 Besides institutes of consecrated life the church recognises 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 recognised by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.”
As is clear, hermits may be women as well as men. The canon does not specify that the hermit must live outside the city, leaving that up to each one to decide. In fact, many today live in cities.
In this case their separation from the world is internal, in the detachment of their heart from the trappings and cares of the world.
The hermit prepares his or her own rule of life, which is approved by the bishop, and then publicly professes the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience before the bishop in a ceremony which officially recognises the person as a hermit in the church. Other hermits may choose to live on their own without being recognised as such by the church.
The Catechism says of hermits: “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” (CCC 921).
Again, when hermits live in the city, they are hidden from the eyes of men in the sense that they avoid unnecessary social interaction with others, spending most of the time in the seclusion of their own home. Their “desert” in this case is their dwelling place.
If they are not financially independent, in order to support themselves they may find some work which does not require being in constant interaction with others, but rather respects, insofar as possible, their life of solitude and silence.
Hermits might engage in a cottage industry where they grow or make articles that can then be sold.