INSIGHT: From Egyptian Desert to Maine Forest; the life of a hermit

As a lifelong solitary, the idea and archetype of the Hermit of course has been of great interest. I have been captivated by the stories of people who live in retreat, such as Cave in the Snow, the autobiography of Tenzin Palmo, a woman who spent 12 years in a 10×8 mountain cave 13,000 ft. above sea level.

Recently, a woman in solitude on a mountaintop in the United States recommended a book to me, The Stranger in the Woods, the story of a 20 year old who lived in solitude without ever directly interacting with another human while living in a hidden campsite in the woods of Maine for twenty seven years. An incredible story.

Chapter thirteen lays out exactly what a hermit is quite clearly.

Excerpt: Anyway, none of these burdens typically produces a hermit. There’s a sea of names for hermits-recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis-yet no solid definitions or qualification standards, except the desire to be primarily alone. Some hermits have tolerated steady streams of visitors, or lived in cities, or holed up in university laboratories. But you can take virtually all the hermits in history and divide them into three general groups to explain why they hid: pro- testers, pilgrims, pursuers.

Protesters are hermits whose primary reason for leaving is hatred of what the world has become. Some cite wars as their motive, or environmental destruction, or crime or consumer- ism or poverty or wealth. These hermits often wonder how the rest of the world can be so blind, not to notice what we’re doing to ourselves.
“I have become solitary,” wrote the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.”

The author continues to describe the other types of hermits, and I especially appreciate the historical details he includes from China, India, The Desert Fathers and Mothers, and medieval Europe, et al.

Excerpt: During the Middle Ages, after the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt died out, a new form of Christian solitary emerged, this time in Europe. They were called anchorites- the name is derived from an ancient Greek word for “withdrawal” – and they lived alone in tiny dark cells, usually attached to the outer wall of a church. The ceremony initiating a new anchorite often included the last rites, and the cell’s doorway was sometimes bricked over. Anchorites were expected to remain in their cells for the rest of their lives; in some cases, they did so for over forty years. This existence, they believed, would offer an intimate connection with God, and salvation. Servants delivered food and emptied chamber pots through a small opening.

However, what makes this book most fascinating is the context of this young man’s life choice – nothing short of astonishing.

From the blurb: Drawing on extensive interviews with Knight himself, journalist Michael Finkel shows how Knight lived in a tent in a secluded encampment, developing ingenious ways to store provisions and stave off frostbite during the winters. A former alarm technician, he stealthily broke into nearby cottages for food, books, and supplies, taking only what he needed but sowing unease in a community plagued by his mysterious burglaries. Since returning to the world, he has faced unique challenges and compelled us to reexamine our assumptions about what makes a good life. By turns riveting and thought-provoking, The Stranger in the Woods gives us a deeply moving portrait of a man determined to live his own way.

COVID forced many into isolation and now they are looking at their world and the larger world beyond it with a different perspective, many seemingly wondering whether or not they really want to re-integrate and to what degree if they do. There’s a large sociological shift occurring on several fronts and the concept and practices of the Hermit too seem relevant and worth a deeper look-see. This book is a great starting point.

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