Revision as of 23:25, February 19, 2006
A hermit (from the Greek erēmos, signifying "desert," "uninhabited," hence "desert-dweller") is a person who lives to some greater or lesser degree in seclusion from society.
The term commonly applies to a Christian who lives the eremitic life out of a religious conviction, namely the Desert Theology of the Old Testament, i.e., the 40 years wandering in the desert that was meant to bring about a change of heart.
Often, both in religious and secular literature, the term is used loosely for anyone living a solitary life-style—including the misanthropist—and in religious contexts is sometimes assumed to be interchangeable with anchorite/anchoress (from the Greek anachōreō, signifying "to withdraw," "to depart into the country outside the circumvallated city"), recluse and solitary. However, it is important to retain a clear distinction.
Christian hermits in the past have most often lived in caves, forests, or deserts, but some of them preferred an isolated cell in a monastery or even a city. From what we know from their contribution to our Christian heritage, male hermits were more common than female.
The solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces wordly concerns and pleasures in order to come closer to the God. In ascetic hermitism, the hermit seeks solitude for meditation, contemplation, and prayer without the distractions of contact with human society, sex, or the need to maintain socially acceptable standards of cleanliness or dress. The ascetic discipline can also include a simplified diet and/or manual labor as a means of support; for example, the early Christian Desert Fathers often wove baskets to exchange for bread.
Ironically, hermits are often sought out for spiritual advice and counsel and may eventually acquire so many disciples that they have no solitude at all. Examples include St. Anthony the Great, who attracted such a large body of followers in the Egyptian desert that he is considered by both Catholics and the Orthodox to be the "Founder of Monasticism." Other religious hermits include St. Mary of Egypt, St. Simeon Stylites, St. Herman of Alaska, Thomas Merton, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and Charles de Foucauld.