In the Christian world the technical designation hermit tends
to signify monastically vowed solitary life. The New Code of RC Canon Law for Monastic and Religious reflects this position,
and gives local Bishops the possibility of vowing diocesan hermits with no connections to any established religious or monastic
order, Per Se. Per Accidens, anyone who would be a vowed diocesan hermit will at least have to have some minimal recourse
to the monastic and eremitic traditions of the Church.
The founders of a number of "active" vowed
religious orders and congregations specifically commanded their religious priests and brothers to be Dominicans/Jesuits/Redemptorists/etc.
when out and about in apostolic ministry, and to be "Carthusians" when in their religious house or monastery. This is an appeal
to members of such orders or congregations to practice a certain kind of solitariness and contemplativeness as the necessary
spiritual feeding of themselves and their apostate on the one hand, and as a means of Divine Intimacy and sanctity, on the
Some of these orders, like the Dominicans, had the tradition of a semi-monastic living
arrangement and community life, including common Divine Office. So their solitude was fit into and supported by that framework.
Others, like the Jesuits, were totally non-monastic, discarding the quasi-monastic framework, and they are really formed to
be very solitary "free style" non-monastic hermits in their "at home" life. There's the old ecclesiastical joke: "What do
you call a Jesuit House? A hotel for solitaries to check in and out of!" While there is more to a Jesuit House than that in
reality, the joke gave some credence to the solitary component of Jesuit Spirituality.
in our day and age, there are all kinds of official and unofficial Christian hermits. Some have the specifically monastic
orientation and find it useful, others don't. What is common to all are: real solitude, prayer of all sorts, reception of
the sacraments, asceticism/spiritual discipline, regular reception of spiritual guidance, and solitary work for material self-support.
Within the Western Church Tradition, especially, in England, there were non-monastic solitaries
who lived in hermitages built into the sides of diocesan parish churches and chapels. These places were called Anchorages,
and the solitaries were called Anchorites. They were locked into their cell complex, which had living quarters and a small
garden, totally enclosed. Normally, there was a small window built into the wall of the church, to hear the Holy Mass from
and to receive the sacraments through.
Some solitaries received visitors there at the window,
some didn't. Some solitaries, known for their holiness and wisdom, functioned like "on call" lay spiritual counselors, and
were quite busy and not terribly solitary, like the Russian Starzty.
The Russian Church eventually
came to understand that the Starzty were hermits who had been given a special call out of the hermitage and to a new spiritual
vocational charism that transcended their eremitism! Russian Starzty like the famous Staretz, St. Seraphim of Sarov, spiritually
guided personally, thousands of visitors each year. In the Western Church this never quite got to that point, but it did have
quite a bit of similar activity from these local non-monastic lay hermits installed in local parish Anchorages.
Please don't forget that eremitism and monasticism began as purely lay movements on an extremely simple and small
scale. It took a while for "institutionalization" to happen. It happened partially from chaos and the need to
get it under control for the good of the souls of would be hermits and monks. It also happened to create a system of discernment,
training, and regularity for hermits and monastics to thrive in, while trying to minimize some of the terrible psychological
and spiritual dangers of solitary life.
In the story of St. Anthony the Great, "the Father of Monasticism",
he started as a simple unlettered solitary ascetic living in the tombs on the edge of his hometown. Due to the press
of visitors, he went out to the middle of the desert to an abandoned old dried out Oasis, to hide and to be alone as a solitary
ascetic. In the beginning he really didn't have a clue of how to be a hermit monk. As he learned through experience
what God taught him in solitude, monasticism was born. He went from being just a solitary ascetic to being a true hermit
monk. He was the first to accept monasticism. He had pushed the spiritual envelope!
It took quite a while for him to "be discovered" there in the desert. St. Anthony had already had his transformative
experiences of solitary life and spiritual combat, which made him into a great saint. His discovery, part of God's plan
for him and us, eventually happened, and he got called back from being a hermit to being an Abbot of would-be-monks.
I guess this was the necessary beginning of "institutionalization" in eremitism and monasticism.
When asked the question that we are asking, Fr Louis Thomas Merton, OCSO, from time to time was wont to ask monks, nuns, and
hermits this question in response:
If there were an anti-religious pogrom that disbanded and outlawed
outward monastic religious observance and communities: "What would you have to do to continue living "on the sly" "deinstitutionalized
in every way" your vowed life as a monk, nun, or hermit?"
He would tell them that once they figured
that out, and they went and did it, they would be right back at the place before the invention of monasticism and eremitism.
He would note that it's not a bad place to be, with the exception that all that has been learned about living in solitude
from the beginning of monasticism and eremitism is still available to guide and educate the "lone wolf" monk, nun, or hermit.
So, it's not quite like having to start entirely from scratch.
His view was that this kind of
experience was liberation from religious life "conventions" that can obscure the discovery and living of the true monasticism
of the heart. Towards the end of his life he thought that was the only monasticism that counts. For the most part,
that's what he thought he was doing in his hermitage at Gethsemene Abbey.
The answer to the question
rests within your own heart. If you create a solitary life for yourself with all the main components of the hermit's life
but without all the traditional trappings of life in a monastery or communal hermit order, you are a hermit. If you leave
out some of the main components, you'll be a solitary. A good spiritual director or mentor call help you discern what God
is calling you to and help you to understand how to respond to that call.
What is most important
for you is to be what God calls you to be, whether a hermit, a solitary, or to any other vocation. All of them are called
to union with God, all of them include contemplative prayer, and all of them have the same ultimate goal of Christian sanctity
in Divine Communion here and hereafter. All of them require us to pray with all our hearts and souls for ourselves: "Thy Will