Not enough has been written about the hermit life and solitude. Way too much has been written. Both are true. Paradox is the name of the game in the hermit life–through and through, in every way. In solitude you do not escape paradox; you go right into its heart. Discomfort with solitude and discomfort with paradox are simply two sides of the same coin. So the hermit certainly looks like an isolated individual, so all alone indeed. Ah, but perhaps he/she is the one most in communion with all! The hermit certainly seems to be running away from life, but, alas, maybe he/she is the one who is most intensely running “toward” life. To borrow a bit from T. S. Eliot: To the crowd that is running away from the center, the one headed in the opposite direction will surely seem like he is the one running away.
The hermit life is truly one of the most beautiful ways of living there is. (And of course there have been “crazy” hermits in the past who have given that life a dubious name at times!) But also truly it is not everyone’s “cup of tea.” Why? Many different answers, reasons, various and diverse formulations of what may be one simple answer, etc. Those within the Christian setting will speak of a “calling.” Thus, one “is called” to be a hermit. Perhaps, but this can be very superficial and used to rationalize all kinds of things. There is really only One Call–God calls you into being, from total nothingness God calls you by a name that only God knows and it is your true name and it is this Call which constitutes your little life and an intrinsic part of that Call is your freedom which then shapes your history. To be attentive to THAT Call, to respond to it with our whole self, to say a deep “Yes, Here I am” (the point of the 1st Commandment) is the whole point of it all. Then comes the flip side of this, as it were—we call to God in the depths of our frail being, we call God by a name that only we have and know, each one of us, and allowing THAT call to resonate through our whole being and life and history is what we seek. Somewhere in all these words you will find the hermit life.
But why are there not more hermits? Even among Buddhists and other religions this is not an age of hermits. Modern Western culture now permeates the whole globe, and it needs to said that this culture is the most antithetical to the values of the hermit life; that it is the most deaf to what the hermit life says about human existence; and that the hermit has never before been more misunderstood and the meaning of the hermit life more distorted.
The fact that there are some people living as hermits is almost a miracle.
Think about the average person in our society. He or she pursues the “American Dream”–meaning a certain level of prosperity, of affluence, etc. Even going to school now for most no longer is a pursuit of knowledge or wisdom but rather a preparation for a career in order to make a good living. The idea of happiness that this culture proposes would not be recognized by almost any wisdom tradition. But the hermit does not pursue the “American Dream” or anyone’s dream–he/she simply meets life in its utter simplicity. This is one of the things that makes the hermit life “hard”—its radical simplicity, it encounters life with its simple needs—like our Zen friends would say: When hungry, eat; when thirsty, drink. Just “chopping wood and carrying water.” The hermit does his chores; makes his meal; listens to the wind in the trees; perhaps meditates; watches the moon in the evening; listens to the owl at night, etc. From the standpoint of our culture this is a deprivation of experience, but the hermit knows better. It is ALL here. Yes, there is a real poverty in that life, but this poverty is like the Burning Bush all alive with the Presence of the Divine.
But lets get one thing clear: the hermit is not some “spiritual insider,” some “special spiritual person” who has all these spiritual experiences. He will experience all the tribulations of the human condition. Prayer and meditation may at times prove to be difficult and distasteful. No special experiences here; nothing to feed the ego. When he begins to feel the weight of his solitude at times, just the simplicity of making a cup of tea in the quiet will console him. The gentle simplicity and beauty of ordinary life–this is the life of the hermit.
But now we must get to the real core of the hermit’s activity—an activity that will seem like no-activity, as if he were doing nothing, yet it is a great and noble and extremely important task: the gentle welcoming of our own frail humanity.
First of all, let it be noted that our kind of society and social life is so (deliberately) constructed that it always will seem that what we need most is somehow, somewhere “out there”–that what will make us happy is “out there”; and then there is of course someone “out there” who will sell us that which is lacking in our life, or we will go out and “achieve” that one thing still to be pursued. But the secret of the hermit life is that “the one thing necessary” is “right there” wherever we are. Because the hermit is not driven by these manufactured compulsions and manipulations of the media and pop culture, he has a special gift and role to play in such a society. But of course this also explains why he will look so odd, so “out of step,” certainly “marching to a very different drummer” than the rest of society, etc. So the hermit simply welcomes his poor, frail humanity, and sees it with the eyes of the Book of Genesis at the dawn of Creation: “and God saw that it was good….” And indeed the hermit’s solitude then becomes a kind of “Paradise” as the old Christian hermits used to say. A Paradise disguised by the utter simplicity of simple needs and basic life. Many others understood this also in their own terms.
But secondly, the hermit, in welcoming his own frail, poor humanity, also bears the burden of all his inadequacies, limitations, frailties, mistakes(yes, even those), etc. And again, our cultural, social lives are organized such as to keep us distracted from such things–provide entertainment, distractions galore, instilling a need to “feel better” than someone else, judging others endlessly, etc. The hermit begins to be liberated from such things–thus he begins to give up the “heavy burden” of judging others (note Jesus’ words) and takes up the “light burden” of his own humanity as it comes from the hand of God moment by moment. Again, paradoxically enough, this makes the hermit such a good exemplar of compassion and forgiveness and peace.
And one last thing: the hermit lives in his/her historical situation with its wars and rumors of wars, with its seemingly endless conflicts, where the nature of things seems to be to seek the victory of one party or group over another. And the hermit may face several serious temptations in this regard. One is to see himself as being “above” or “beyond” all that. He lives in a kind of etherial realm where the ambiguous pulls and calls of social life do not reach him. This is really an illusion. The other temptation is to become swept up by some historical movement that pulls him into a superficial solidarity with certain people and “against” others. The hermit cannot be a “true believer” of any party or any movement. Yet he is “on the side” of all those who are poor, exploited, tortured, abused, the downtrodden, the tired and weary of life, the hungry, the lonely, those who are killed for grand military objectives, those who have been objects of hatred and prejudice, those who are filled with self-hatred, etc, etc. Yes, the hermit is on their side, everywhere and always. In the hermit’s quiet peace, in his lack of self-assertion, in his relinquishing possession, greed, rapaciousness, in his own simple humanity without any labels he will be a witness of another kind of world.