Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits.

I found this Abstract interesting.

Idiopathic environmental intolerances, such as ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’ and ‘electrosensitivity,’ can drastically affect the quality of life of those affected. A proportion of severely affected patients remove themselves from modern society, to live in isolation away from the purported causal agent of their ill health. This is not a new phenomenon; reports of hermits extend back to the 3(rd) century AD. We conducted a literature review of case reports relating to ancient hermits and modern day reclusion resulting from idiopathic environmental intolerance, in order to explore whether there are similarities between these two groups and whether the symptoms of these ‘illnesses of modernity’ are simply a present-day way of reaching the end-point of reclusion. Whilst there were some differences between the cases, recurring themes in ancient and modern cases included: dissatisfaction with society, a compulsion to flee, reports of a constant struggle and a feeling of fighting against the establishment. The similarities which exist between the modern-day cases and the historical hermits may provide some insight into the extreme behaviours exhibited by this population. The desire to retreat from society in order to escape from harm has existed for many centuries, but in different guises.


My Nan’s a recluse and I’ve only seen her once, briefly, in ten years, and am not permitted to see her now even though she’s dying.

If life were different, I would be a total recluse also.

In regard to the abstract, I assumed the behaviour of most ‘historical hermits’ stemmed from spiritual reasoning, rather than anything else. As for sitting on a pole for years……

An historical irony is of course that folk were attracted to hermits, and through this mechanism the Gospel spread. Once a community had built up around the hermit, the solitude-loving monastic pioneer would move on further into the wilderness, and the process would begin again.

Wifey told me this is how much of  the Northern territories of Russia were colonised and taken for the Gospel.

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5 Responses to “Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits.”

  1. Wifey Says:

    For those interested in what would seem to be almost incomprehensible circumstances and living in comparison to our modern lives: ‘The Northern Thebaid* Monastic Russian’ is the book; Covering the lives of those great monastic pioneers in the Desert of the North – Northern Russia.


    *I’m told that Thebaid was in upper Egypt were St Anthony the Great (the Father of All Monks) settled.

  2. Goy Says:

    “If life were different, I would be a total recluse also.” :-)

    Not sure if that is a negative or positve comment, would embrace the bliss of solitude over the conditioned and enforced socialising wasteland of the present times.

  3. Peter D Says:

    I think what is particularly interesting about the emergence of the hermit in Christian culture (and remember there are ‘hermits’ in almost – if not all – major religions) is that monasticism only really took off once Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire – which is curious when you think about it!

    I have known a goodly number of hermits or solitaries. The superior of the monastic community where I was once a member had a particular ministry to solitaries (usual nuns who had lived much of their lives in active communities but in later life had felt called to a solitary life – tho’ some were just individuals who had not lived the religious life). A few lived at the monastery in either caravans or in one of the purpose built hermitages the community. Others either/or visited the community or the superior visited them – and I occasionally tagged along.

    I must caution people not to get overly romantic about the solitary life. In my own experience, many of those choosing to lead it obviously had major issues in the relationships with their fellow Religious or family and friends (or their own pasts). On one level it can be a rather honourable way to excuse the fact you just don’t get on with other people. There were a few I met whom I genuinely thought there was something very special about them, but in the main I thought many were just nasty old cows who made much of their ‘solitary’ vocation to hide the fact they hadn’t really done very well in the ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’ stakes! Nor even liking themselves (a common malady of the religiously inclined…).

    The following is from a published piece of my own writing cautioning how seculars view those within the cloister (published in a monastic journal). Obviously I am writing about monasteries, but I think the same applies to hermits too.

    “The pious or censured life of the Religious help us make the nun or monk take on the holiness or self discipline lacking in ourselves. The self is sitting on its well-worn judgement seat, passing sentence on the world, and all the time not really judging its own righteousness or failings, because the standard by which it is judging the outer world is false. This standard is unreal because we’ve made it far removed from our own experience and reaction to the world around us. This means we can shrug our shoulders and say that being a cloistered, devout soul is all very well, but it is a specialised calling, and not something we have to worry about.

    [The former warden of Fairarces Convent] Fr Gilbert Shaw said of religious houses that they are places for sinners! Now there’s a healthy perspicacity. And of course he is right. Monks and nuns are no different from the rest of us, nor are monasteries always havens of peace and holiness (sometimes far from it!!). The problems of the world are found in our hearts (cf Matt 15:19); a monastic cloister is no protection from them. Yet monasteries are places where people live who have been given a vocation from God which is rare, though its foundations are the same for all Christians and can be summed up in what are known as the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. Relying on mythical beliefs is a very handy way of avoiding living by faith, hope and love because it is a two-way process of viewing the world. We see the world from our own point of view: the ‘me’ inside our head and the world perceived through the senses. This worldview is built on accumulated knowledge which itself rests on half-truths and man-centred ways of viewing and understanding the world: in short the culture that has formed us as individuals and the society in which we live. It leaves little room for faith, hope and love.”

    If I glance to my left (I’m sitting in my study) at eyelevel in the bookcase at the side of me are the Philokalia, Sr Benedicta Ward’s (of Fairacres noted above) ‘The Lives of the Desert Fathers’ and one or two books by Schmemann and Meyendorff – all books I devoured at one time. And I can say that reading St Athanasius’ ‘Life of St Anthony’ probably shaped my Christian thinking almost as much as ++Ramsey’s ‘Gospel and the Catholic Church’. Yet I really would caution people not to get too enamoured of the eremitical life – I think it can only be entered into once a person has made a success of life in the world, otherwise it is just a running away from the life we have been given to live.

  4. Jonathan Michael Says:


    You are right, although the eremtic tradition contains enough warnings about *not* taking up the eremetic life to put off most people. Those tend to be ignored, even when coming from the mouths of the great ascetic Saints who are most admired.

    “Many live in the wilderness and behave as though they were in a town. They are wasting their time. It is possible to be a hermit in the mind while living among the masses; likewise, it is possible to be a hermit and live in the crowd of one’s own thoughts.”
    -Amma Synkletike

  5. Peter D Says:


    There is a wonderful story in the Philokalia (or similar – I can’t remember off hand) of a desert monk who felt rather sure of his own righteousness and spiritual acumen. God said that he would show this monk two even more perfect souls. The monk expected to be led further into the wildernesses of the Egyptian desert to see two aged monks, but was surprised when he was led back into the town he had left long ago to live his life of prayerful seclusion. He was led hither and dither through the streets and brought to where two housewives were busily about their chores. God told the monk that these two women were far more ‘perfect’ than he in their hectic lives as mothers and wives – for they lived their lives modestly, cheerfully, in thanksgiving and with love for God and their neighbours; they didn’t think themselves ‘special’ or ‘different’ or ‘holy’.

    I think the first shock anyone gets, if they stay for more than a week or so at a convent or monastery, and get to glimpse life through the Enclosure doors, is that the life of a religious can be far from either peaceful or harmonious – Ps 133 may be sung in the monastic choir, but it is rarely lived out in the monastic life! Yet people WANT to believe that somehow life in a monastery IS different. Just as they want to believe someone living a secluded, solitary life is a great saint. We do make others the repository for the goodness, holiness and self-discipline we perceive as lacking in ourselves. Yet if we are not careful we can become idolatrous of what we see (or more often imagine) in others yet should be cultivating within ourselves!

    On saying that, I think everyone should have ‘time out’ when possible and I think there is something to be gained from retreat, particular when it is at a religious house where there is a life of prayer.

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