In Christianity, the term was originally applied to a Christian who lives the eremitic life out of a religious conviction, namely 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).
In the Christian tradition the eremitic life is an early form of monastic living that preceded the monastic life in the cenobium. The Rule of St Benedict (ch. 1) lists hermits among four kinds of monks. In the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to hermits who are members of religious institutes, the Canon law (canon 603) recognizes also consecrated hermits under the direction of their diocesan bishop as members of the consecrated life. The same is true in many parts of the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church in the US, although in the canon law of the Episcopal Church they are referred to as "solitaries" rather than "hermits".
Often, both in religious and secular literature, the term "hermit" is also used loosely for any Christian living a secluded prayer-focused life, and sometimes interchangeably with anchorite/anchoress, recluse and "solitary". Other religions, for example, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (Sufism), and Taoism, also have hermits in the sense of individuals living an ascetic form of life.
In modern colloquial usage, "hermit" denotes anyone living apart from the rest of society, or simply participating in fewer social events, for any reason.
The word hermit comes from the Latin ĕrēmīta, the latinisation of the Greek ἐρημίτης (erēmitēs), "of the desert", which in turn comes from ἔρημος (erēmos), signifying "desert", "uninhabited", hence "desert-dweller"; adjective: "eremitic".
In the common Christian tradition the first known Christian hermit in Egypt was Paul of Thebes (fl. 3rd century), hence also called "St. Paul the first hermit". His disciple Antony of Egypt (fl. 4th century), often referred to as "Antony the Great", is perhaps the most renowned of all the very early Christian hermits owing to the biography by his friend Athanasius of Alexandria. An antecedent for Egyptian eremiticism may have been the Syrian solitary or "son of the covenant" (Aramaic bar qəyāmā) who undertook special disciplines as a Christian. In the Middle Ages some Carmelite hermits claimed to trace their origin to Jewish hermits organized by Elijah.
Christian hermits in the past have often lived in isolated cells or hermitages, whether a natural cave or a constructed dwelling, situated in the desert or the forest. They tended to be sought out for spiritual advice and counsel. Some eventually acquired so many disciples that they had no physical solitude at all.
From the Middle Ages and down to modern times eremitical monasticism has also been practiced within the context of religious institutes in the Christian West. For example, in the 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. There have also been many hermits who chose that vocation as an alternative to other forms of monastic life. In the 11th century, the life of the hermit gained recognition as a legitimate independent pathway to salvation. Many hermits in that century and the next came to be regarded as saints.
Anchorites and anchoresses
The term "anchorite" (from the Greek ἀναχωρέω anachōreō, signifying "to withdraw", "to depart into the country outside the circumvallate city") is often used as a synonym for hermit, not only in the earliest written sources but throughout the centuries. Yet the anchoritic life, while similar to the eremitic life, can also be distinct from it. Anchorites and anchoresses lived the religious life in the solitude of an "anchorhold" (or "anchorage"), usually a small hut or "cell", typically built against a church. The door of an anchorage tended to be bricked up in a special ceremony conducted by the local bishop after the anchorite had moved in. Medieval churches survive 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 looked out into the street or cemetery, enabling charitable neighbours to deliver food and other necessities. Clients seeking the anchorite's advice might also use this window to consult him or her.
- either as a hermit
- or as a consecrated hermit under the canonical direction of their local bishop (canon 603, see below).
Eremitic members of religious institutes
In the 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 religious superior to do so. The Code of Canon Law (1983) contains no special provisions for them. They technically remain a member of their institute of consecrated life and thus under obedience to their religious superior.
As mentioned above, the Carthusian and Camaldolese orders of monks and nuns preserve their original way of life as essentially eremitical within a cenobitical context, that is, the monasteries of these orders are in fact clusters of individual hermitages where monks and nuns spend their days alone with relatively short periods of prayer in common daily and weekly.
Also, as mentioned above, other orders which are essentially cenobitical, most notably the Trappists, maintain a tradition that allows individual monks or nuns, when they have reached a certain level of maturity within the community, to pursue the life of the hermit on monastery grounds under the supervision of the abbot or abbess. Thomas Merton was among those Trappists who undertook this way of life.
Diocesan hermits (canon 603)
The earliest form of Christian eremitic or anchoritic living preceded that as a member of a religious institute, since monastic communities and religious institutes are later developments of the monastic life. Today an increasing number of Christian faithful feel again a vocation to live the eremitic life, whether in the remote countryside or in a city in stricter separation from the world, without having passed through life in a monastic community 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.
So as to provide for men and women who feel a calling to the eremitic or anchoritic life without being or becoming a member of an institute of consecrated life, but desire its recognition by the Roman Catholic Church as a form of consecrated life nonetheless, the Code of Canon Law 1983 legislates in the Section on Consecrated Life (canon 603) as follows:
Canon 603 §2 therefore lays down certain requirements for those who feel a vocation to the kind of eremitic life that is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as one of the "other forms of consecrated life". They usually are referred to as "diocesan hermits".
The norms of canon 603 do not apply to the many other Catholic 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 Roman Catholic 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. (Footnote: 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.
The norms of the Catholic Church for the consecrated eremitic and anchoritic life (cf. canon 603) do not include corporal works of mercy. Nevertheless, every hermit, like every Christian, 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 corporal works of mercy. Hermits, like every Christian, are also bound by the law of work. If they are not financially independent, they may engage in cottage industries or be employed part-time in jobs which respect the call for them to live in solitude and silence with extremely limited or no contact with other persons. Such outside jobs may not keep them from observing their obligations of the eremitic vocation of stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude in accordance with canon 603, under which they have made their vow.
Although canon 603 makes no provision for associations of hermits, these do exist (for example the "Hermits of Bethlehem" in Chester NJ and the "Hermits of Saint Bruno" in the US; see also lavra, skete).
Non-consecrated eremitic living
Not all the Catholic lay members that feel that it is their vocation to dedicate themselves to God in a prayerful solitary life perceive it as a vocation to some form of consecrated life. An example of this is life in a Poustinia, an Eastern Catholic expression of eremitic religious living that is finding adherents also in the West.
In the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church, those who make application to their diocesan bishop and who persevere in whatever preparatory program the bishop requires, take vows that include lifelong celibacy. They are referred to as "solitaries" rather than "hermits". Each selects a bishop other than their diocesan as an additional spiritual resource and, if necessary, an intermediary.
In the Orthodox Church and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, 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 Scetes, a place in the Egyptian desert, and continued in various sketes today including several regions on Mount Athos.
Notable Christian hermits
Early and Medieval Church
- Anthony of Egypt, 4th century, Egypt, a Desert Father, regarded as the founder of Christian Monasticism
- Macarius of Egypt, 4th century, founder of the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great, presumed author of "Spiritual Homilies"
- St. Jerome, 4th century, Mediterranean region, Doctor of the Church, considered the spiritual father of the Hieronymite eremitic order
- Syncletica of Alexandria, 4th century, Egypt, one of the early Desert Mothers, her maxims are included in the sayings of the Desert Fathers
- Gregory the Illuminator, 4th century, brought the Christian faith to Armenia
- Mary of Egypt, 4th/5th century, Egypt and Transjordan, penitent
- Simeon Stylites, 4th/5th century, Syria, "pillar hermit"/"pillar saint"
- Sarah of the Desert, 5th century, Egypt, one of the Desert Mothers, her maxims are recorded in the sayings of the Desert Fathers
- St Benedict of Nursia, 6th century, Italy, author of the so-called Rule of St Benedict, regarded as the founder of western monasticism
- Kevin of Glendalough, 6th Century, Ireland
- St. Gall, 7th century, Switzerland, namesake of the city and canton of St. Gallen.
- St. Romuald, 10th/11th century, Italy, founder of the Camaldolese order
- Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir, 10th/11th century, Iceland.
- St. Bruno of Cologne, 11th century, France, the founder of the Carthusian order
- Peter the Hermit, 11th century, France, leader of the People's Crusade
- Blessed Eusebius of Esztergom, 13th century, Hungary, the founder of the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit
- Bl. Gonçalo de Amarante, 13th century, Portugal, Dominican friar
- Richard Rolle de Hampole, 13th century, England, religious writer
- Julian of Norwich, 15th century, England, anchoress
- St. Juan Diego, 1474–1548, Mexico, visionary of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Roman Catholic church
- Well-known hermit members of religious orders:
- Diocesane hermits according to canon 603:
- Sr Scholastica Egan, writer on the eremitic vocation
- Sr Laurel M O'Neal, Er Dio, spiritual director, writer on eremitical life
- Fr Vincenzo Ginex (Dom. Ugo), Er Dio
- Colonies, sketes, lavras of diocesane hermits:
- Hermits of Bethlehem, Chester, NJ (modern lavra)
- Christian faithful living an eremitic form of life without belonging to institutes or being a diocesane hermit (canon 603):
- Jeanne Le Ber, 17th/18th century, Canadian Catholic recluse, inspired the founding of the Order of female religious the Recluse Sisters / Les Recluses Missionaires.
- Sister Wendy Beckett, formerly of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, since 1970 also a consecrated virgin, lives in "monastic solitude"; art historian
- Catherine de Hueck Doherty, poustinik, foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate
- Charles de Foucauld, 19th/20th century, formerly Trappist monk, inspired the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus
- Jan Tyranowski, spiritual mentor to the young Karol Wojtyla, who would eventually become Pope John Paul II
- Sergius of Radonezh, 14th century
- Herman of Alaska, 18th century
- Seraphim of Sarov, 18th/19th century
From a religious point of view, the solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces worldly concerns and pleasures. This can be done for many reasons, including: to come closer to the deity or deities they worship or revere, to devote one's energies to self-liberation from saṃsāra, etc. This practice appears also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. Taoism also has a long history of ascetic and eremetical figures. 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.
Notable hermits in other religions
- Gautama Buddha, who, having abandoned his royal life for a solitary quest for spiritual enlightenment, first became a hermit, and later abandoned asceticism to become the founder of Buddhism.
- Ramana Maharshi, the renowned Hindu philosopher and saint who meditated for several years at and around the hillside temple of Thiruvannamalai in Southern India .
- Laozi, who in some traditions spent his final days as a hermit.
- U Khandi, religious figure in Burma
- Yoshida Kenkō, Japanese author
- Zhang Daoling, founder of Tianshi Dao
- Hsu Yun, Ch'an Buddhist monk in China.
- Hanshan, Buddhist/Taoist hermit and poet.
- Lin Bu (林逋), a Song Dynasty poet who spent much of his later life in solitude, while admiring plum blossoms, on a cottage by West Lake in Hangzhou.
- The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, lived for many years as a hermit in the Carpathian Mountains.
- Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the Baal Shem Tov's great-grandson, also spent much time in seclusion and instructed his disciples to set aside at least one hour a day for secluded contemplation and prayer. Some followers of Rabbi Nachman devoted themselves to seclusion, such as Rabbi Shmuel of Dashev and two generations later, Rabbi Abraham Chazan.
- Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horowitz, known as the "Alter (Elder) of Novardok," succeeded his master Rabbi Yisrael Salanter in disseminating the pietistic teachings of the Lithuanian Mussar Movement. He too spent much time in seclusion, included one year during which he confined himself to a sealed room, attended by a few devoted followers.
In popular culture
- In medieval romances, the knight-errant frequently encounters hermits on his quest; such a figure, generally a wise old man, would advise him. Knights searching for the Holy Grail, in particular, learn of the errors of which they must repent, and have the significance of their encounters, dreams and visions 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. These hermits are sometimes also vegetarians for ascetic reasons, as suggested in a passage from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: 'Then departed Gawain and Ector as heavy (sad) as they might for their misadventure (mishap), and so rode till that they came to the rough mountain, and there they tied their horses and went on foot to the hermitage. And when they were (had) come up, they saw a poor house, and beside the chapel a little courtelage (courtyard), where Nacien the hermit gathered worts (vegetables), as he which had tasted none other meat (food) of a great while.' The practice of vegetarianism may have also existed amongst actual medieval hermits outside of literature.
- Hermits can appear in fairy tales in the character of the donor, as in Făt-Frumos with the Golden Hair.
- Hermits appear in a few of the stories of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron. One of the most famous stories, the tenth story of the third day, involves the seduction of a young girl by a hermit in the desert near Gafsa; it was judged to be so obscene that it was not translated into English until the 20th century.
- The main character of Tolstoy's short story "Father Sergius" is a Russian nobleman who turns to a solitary religious life and becomes a hermit after he learns that his fiancee was a discarded mistress of the czar.
- English musician John Renbourn released an album and song titled The Hermit. The album cover shows a man similar to the images printed on Tarot decks.
- 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 to extol his philosophy to the rest of humanity.
- In the late 18th century, some English noblemen would have "ornamental hermits" living on their land, for instance in a folly. The hermit would be paid, provided with food and water, and given a skull, a book and an hourglass. Some of these ornamental hermits did not talk to the servants, but simply repeated a phrase in Latin. Most grew beards and did not cut their nails. Notable places with ornamental hermits included Painshill and Hawkstone Park.
- In Star Wars, 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. Yoda, another Jedi, was also originally portrayed as a wizard or hermit.
- In the Friday the 13th series, the character Jason Voorhees was believed to have died after he drowned as a child. However, this later changed when it was revealed that he survived and lived life as a hermit – only to enter a murderous rage when he witnesses the death of his mother seemingly years later (which was during the events of the original film).
- In the anime Dragon Ball, a martial-arts master named Muten Roshi is often referred to as a Turtle Hermit, despite the fact that over the course of the series characters are often visiting or even living in his island home.
- Monty Python had a sketch about two hermits agreeing at the beginning "There's no point frigging your life in idleness and trivial chit-chats" but the conversation quickly degenerate into a gossip about their hermit neighbors and their caves as if it was an ordinary suburban gossip. It ends with the punchline: "It's still better, being a hermit, at least you meet people" – "Oh yes, I wouldn't go back to public relations."
- The primary antagonist of Yogi's First Christmas is a character by the name of Herman the Hermit. He is a solitary, misanthropic individual who hates Christmas, and who "only wants to be left alone."
- Along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon there is a popular location known as Hermit's Rest, at the end of Hermit Road. The location was named for Louis Boucher. Around 1891, Boucher, a Canadian-born prospector, staked claims below present-day Hermits Rest. With help, Boucher carved a trail into the canyon and for years lived alone at nearby Dripping Springs. He has been described as a kind, gentle soul. Though not a true hermit, Boucher is the 'hermit' for whom local features around the southern rim are named.
- On the soap opera Days of Our Lives, John Black's long lost father, Yo Ling was a hermit who lived in seclusion.
- Lavra, (cluster of cells for hermits)
- Skete (monastic community)
- New York Times
- Numbers 13:3, Numbers 13:26
- Marina Miladinov, Margins of Solitude: Eremitism in Central Europe between East and West (Zaghreb: Leykam International, 2008)
- eremita, Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, on Perseus project
- ἐρημίτης, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
- ἔρημος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
- Re: the Syrian "son of the covenant"
- Tom Licence, Hermits and Recluses in English Society 950-1200, (Oxford, 2011),p.36.
- Oxford English Dictionary. "A person who has withdrawn or secluded himself from the world; usually one who has done so for religious reasons, a recluse, a hermit."
- McAvoy, LA., Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2010, p. 2.
- Dyas, E., Edden, V. and Ellis, R., Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts, DS Brewer, 2005, p. 10-12.
- Dubay, T., And You Are Christ's: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life, Ignatius Press, 1987, Ch. 9.
- See for instance Bamberg Anne, Ermite reconnu par l’Église. Le c. 603 du code de droit canonique et la haute responsabilité de l’évêque diocésain, in Vie consacrée, 74, 2002, p. 104-118 and Entre théologie et droit canonique : l’ermite catholique face à l’obéissance, in Nouvelle revue théologique, 125, 2003, p. 429-439 or Eremiten und geweihtes Leben. Zur kanonischen Typologie, in Geist und Leben, 78, 2005, p. 313-318.
- Fong, Grace S. (2008). Herself an author: gender, agency, and writing in late Imperial China. University of Hawaii Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-8248-3186-8.
- Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, p 179-81, ISBN 0-8014-8000-0
- Lewis, C. S., Spenser's Images of Life, p 87, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967
- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur 16.3
- Campbell, G., The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 1.
- Ringing Church Bells to ward off Thunderstorms, 2009. 978-0956204608
- This article incorporates text from a work in the public domain: Porter, Noah, ed. (1913). "Webster's entry needed". Webster's Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: C. & G. Merriam Co.
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Hermits". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hermits.|
- Rotha Mary Clay, Full Text + Illustrations, The Hermits and Anchorites of England.
- The tradition of the Lersi Hermits
- British hermits: the growing lure of the solitary life
- A forum for hermits & solitaries