Could you live the eremitic life, either in the Christian meaning of the word, or in the secular sense?
In both religious and secular literature, the eremitic life is lived by a ‘hermit’, a person who, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, lives in solitude as a part of a religious discipline, or who intentionally shuns society.
The female equivalent of a hermit is the anchoress. In my first post I mentioned Robyn Cadwallader’s début novel, set in 1255, about a young woman, Sarah, who is walled into a cell nine by seven paces, and these are the paces of a slight girl, where she intends to spend the rest of her life. After many difficulties, both internally and externally generated, Sarah adjusts to her life as an anchoress. She is not entirely isolated, however. From her cell she ministers to the women of her local village, playing a small but vital part in the life of the people who live close to the church where she is immured.
Hermits are generally reclusive, solitary, characters found in all religious traditions. The modern image of a hermit is of an ascetic or eccentric elder, alone on a mountain or in a forest, meditating, growing their own vegetables and bothering no one. A quick Google search revealed this image to be only partially true, particularly in the case of Sister Rachel Denton who stays in touch with the world via Facebook and Twitter.
I’m not sure I want to become a hermit, but the solitude, the extended stretches of time and the ability to decide for oneself how to spend that time is very appealing. How would I fill my days? Writing, of course. I’d make up for lost time, pumping out as many stories as possible. Then there is reading; the cliché that there are too many books and too little time is spot on. My to-be-read pile of books will probably outlive me. I’d walk every day, not power walking but strolling, being present to birdsong, to the gentle chuntering of the leaves as they respond to their conductor, the wind. I’m also of an age to reflect on my life, to weigh and measure my accomplishments and forgive my failures. I’d also meditate. I’d silence the inner chatter, breathe, honour and refresh my neurons and soothe the synaptic clefts tucked away in my brain.
Is the eremitic life a selfish life? That’s like asking if awakening the inner self is a selfish act, for in a sense that’s what hermits are exposed to, their inner self. They might study devotional tracts or scriptures, they might nourish the land they live on but when the sun sets, their companion of choice is the being who was with them at the beginning and will be there at the very last: the voice in their head; their consciousness; their inner being. It takes, I believe, a certain kind of courage to deeply and honestly connect with one’s self. What we find is a complicated, seething consciousness: complex and simple; wise and foolish; generous and selfish; peace loving and aggressive; kind and cruel; honest and corrupt; decisive and irresolute; knowledgeable and pudding headed and all things in-between. How many of us are willing to risk knowing who we really are?
Right now, I’d settle for one or two days of solitude a week. I’ve already confronted many inner weaknesses and faults, even accommodated and embraced a couple of them, though I am positive there are more lurking within. I’d willingly turn off the television, the radio and the internet and be with my self. Nor would I worry about being selfish because I think knowing and accepting one’s self is the first step to knowing and accepting others. After all, if we can live with the madness and glory that is the self, then spending time with our loved ones should be simple. For now, however, I am satisfied with Emerson’s recommendation:
Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other. The conditions are met if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Solitude and Society, 1857
I have my small sanctuary, a physical space where I write, but as most writers know it’s the space in one’s head that must be nurtured. I am slowly creating that inner space, a mental mountaintop where I withdraw and nourish the word-smith within.
Do you want more time with yourself? Do you want to devote your day to the scriptures or to similar works of the learned and wise? What do you need to know that a few day’s solitude might reveal? Would you remove yourself from the madding crowd and listen to the inner voice?