Salvation in solitude and simplicity
In today’s world, loneliness seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Countless studies have highlighted the serious and negative impact that loneliness has on our health, our sense of well-being, and our ability to thrive in an increasingly chaotic world.
Most recently, the urgency of the problem led the UK to appoint a minister for loneliness. Christmas is a particularly lonely time for the elderly.
But loneliness (feeling alone) and solitude (being alone) are not the same thing. And lessons can be learnt from those who have found solitude essential for inspiration.
Solitude – being alone – has long been praised as a necessary condition for creativity. Author Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, reflected on the writer’s need for solitude. So did many poets.
In their writings, May Sarton (“alone one is never lonely”) and William Wordsworth (“the bliss of solitude”) both praised solitude. Poet Marianne Moore has even argued that "the cure for loneliness is solitude”.
The history of religious hermits shows that there have long been individuals who seek solitude in remote and silent places, and there are lessons to be learnt from them.
“Hermit” comes from an ancient Greek word, “eremos”, meaning both a desolate and lonely place and a state of being alone.
Hermits exist in many of the world's major religious traditions: They are individuals who choose temporary or permanent solitude in remote and isolated locations, such as mountains, caves and deserts. These locations are frequently depicted as sites for revelation and transformation.
The emergence of hermits in early Christianity is particularly striking as the image of the desert wilderness is very much part of the Judeo-Christian story.
In the fourth century, however, a monastic movement emerged in Egypt, as some Christians began to withdraw permanently into “the desert”. The harshness of a dry and barren landscape suited Christians eager to pursue an ascetic life and escape the crime and violence of a crumbling Roman Empire.
A common theme in stories about these desert hermits is their desire to leave the distractions of urban life and live a precarious existence in isolation.
The most famous Christian hermit was Antony, who one day heard a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in his church: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21)
Antony literally sold his property and departed for the desert. This withdrawal into wilderness became an example for later Christians eager to pursue solitude and contemplation.
The lives of hermits may seem distant from our busy contemporary lives. But the romantic appeal of an unencumbered and undistracted life has not disappeared. Hermits in the 21st century come from all walks of life, religious and secular, but share with those from the past a longing for quiet solitude and simplicity.
Could the wisdom of artists, poets, and religious hermits offer comfort in a time of loneliness today?
● Peter Woods is a pastoral counsellor.