Today hermits are challenging their image, just as they did when they first appeared in the 4th century. Rather than embodying the stereotype of a monk or nun praying in silence and living alone, hermits are becoming a surprisingly connected community. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported on a village seeking a hermit who also likes people, an apparent paradox. Can hermits, dwelling in religious confinement, meet and advise the thousands of tourists that flood once-secluded towns, and still call themselves hermits? These days, eremitism manages to float between boundaries and conventions.
The role of the Christian anchorite emerged when martyrdom by blood disappeared, as Constantine took the reins of the Roman Empire. To fulfill their spiritual calling, those seeking reflection, and the life of dedication and connection to the divine, turned to self-isolation. Hermits were originally desert wanderers, notably with St. Anthony of Egypt, but as more and more people sought their advice, many transitioned to monastic life. As the ability to be secluded becomes more difficult, hermits face a constant battle between connecting at a distance and maintaining the quiet contemplation that guides them.
With modern technology closing the distance in a shrinking world, hermits are sometimes forced to use the Internet, Facebook, or email to survive. However, this use doesn’t necessarily violate their solitude or moral code. They thrive just as well in cities as in the countryside, and increasingly, retreat in pursuit of a higher connection doesn’t have to mean complete isolation.
Many recluses don’t reject smartphones or other modern technologies, so long as their use accents seclusion rather than impeding it. Resources for those on spiritual quests, such as Raven’s Bread, build a linked yet distant community. Karen and Paul Fredette, hermits and the creators of Raven’s Bread, produce a quarterly newsletter addressing issues such as the difficulties of seclusion and the need for hermits to recognize the spectrum of reclusiveness in their ranks. Raven’s Bread administers support for beginners and experienced hermits alike, ranging from lifestyle advice to a retreat conducted by the Fredettes.
Websites like hermitary.com provide a better understanding of the hermit’s way for the rest of us. Perhaps this new connectedness is a reflection of the human spirit’s struggle with its inclination toward both the mundane and the sublime, amplified and challenged through the advances in technology. Nevertheless, there has never been a hermit meet-up and many still live in absolute isolation, especially in the East, where it is more acceptable to remove oneself from society. The question remains—can we find the light through lit screens, or are they guiding us into a mirage? Undoubtedly, technology continues to be a powerful force in all our lives. Whether it’s empowering or overpowering is yet to be determined.
Posted by A.Z. Lee