Say "hermit," and you might picture a bearded man in a tunic in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere. Each morning, the hermit dines on bread and water; in the afternoon, he hovers over cryptic calligraphy; and at night, he chants ancient hymns that bounce off the bare walls.
But the modern hermit breaks most stereotypes: He may wear a tunic, but he'll live in the inner city. He may transcribe Latin, but he'll also run a website.
Contemplative groups and monasteries around the country report a growing number of people pursuing a life of solitude, contemplation, and prayer. The Raven's Bread, a quarterly newsletter for hermits, surveyed 590 subscribers last May, most of them scattered around North America. Out of 122 who responded, 88 are currently living as hermits, 15 plan to start doing so soon, and 28 indicated interest in such a vocation.
According to the survey, these contemporary hermits include nuns and monks, priests, Buddhists, and Quakers. Some live alone in complete silence, and some live in cloisters with other hermits. Some take public vows before clergy, while others maintain absolute anonymity. "It seems to be a movement that's larger than the containers in place to hold it," says the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Anglican priest and a hermit with the Contemplative Society in Victoria, British Columbia.
What is today's equivalent of finding inner peace in a cell in the Sahara Desert in the tradition of St. Anthony, the most famous of the Roman Catholic hermits? Each hermit has his or her own interpretation of the solitary life. But if modern society creates a ringing in the ears that leaves many craving solitude, today's world also puts up barriers to that solitude. Whatever their spiritual feats, the modern hermit's first accomplishment is simply finding a way to be alone.
If Ms. Bourgeault had her way, she'd be living in total isolation in an 18-by-24-foot cabin on Eagle Island in Maine. But money won't allow it - yet.
Bourgeault, professed by an Anglican bishop in Colorado, has worked out a deal with the Contemplative Society. In return for her teaching prayer, the society provides her a place to live. She also earns money writing about prayer. Whatever she can save goes toward the cabin. Construction began this summer.
But Bourgeault works with more than a twinge of regret - as a hermit, she longs not only to be alone, but to shun distractions, including teaching and writing. "How do you make a living [as a hermit]?" she asks. "That's ... hotly contested."
Bourgeault's solution - to work for a religious group while keeping her own space - is just one. Karen Fredette, who edits the Raven's Bread with her husband in Hot Springs, N.C., is a former nun and hermit. From 1989 to 1994, Ms. Fredette lived in a small cabin in West Virginia rent-free (also plumbing-free). To sustain herself, she worked once a week as a church secretary. But what really saved her, she can only describe as divine providence: a monthly check for $300 from an anonymous benefactor for most of those six years.
The Raven's Bread survey reports that income for 58 percent of hermits is less than $20,000 a year, with 11 percent living by alms. Yet while all Christian hermits take vows of poverty, Bourgeault insists that hermits not be confused with ascetics.
Take Brother Randy Horton, an Episcopal hermit professed by the bishop of New York. Around noon one day recently, the doorbell rang at his apartment on the top floor of a house in Lakeville, Conn., in the Berkshires. An old friend? Perhaps someone with a mistaken address? It turned out to be a special delivery - from amazon.com. Other signs this hermit is well connected with the physical world include a television, VCR, stereo, computer, and laptop positioned throughout his bed-and-breakfast-like home. Not to mention the Harry Potter poster hanging over his bed, college-dorm style.
Brother Randy's solution to the question of how to make a living? He runs a halfway house for recovering alcoholics. That covers room and board. Everything else - except for the Harry Potter poster - is a gift or donation.
Most hermits have a hankering to live in the wilderness, but that's not always an option. Moreover, Bourgeault and others stress that physical seclusion is ultimately no more than a device - training wheels for the beginner.
"The hermit is within," Bourgeault explains. "The physical reclusion can outlive its usefulness."
The Little Brothers of Saint Francis, a group of Roman Catholic hermits, live in one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods. In addition to prayer, their mission is to befriend the poor. Each of the seven brothers has his own room in the brown shingle house they share. In the evenings, they hold the Christian hermit's traditional "grand silence." The Little Brothers hardly live in seclusion but call themselves hermits because their priority is contemplation and prayer. "We're just as contemplative as monks on a mountaintop," says Brother James Curran, who founded the hermitage in 1970.
They are not alone as city hermits. Only two hermits who responded to the Raven's Bread survey said they live in "wilderness," while 31 said they live in an urban site, and 26 indicated suburban locations.
Hermits belonging to an existing religious order, as the Little Brothers are, take guidelines for a contemplative life from that order. But other Christian hermits, such as Brother Randy, write their own rules. In practice, his regimen is similar to any other daily grind. Monday through Friday, he rises at 5 and holds two hours of prayer before breakfast at 8:30.
Between breakfast and the noon prayer, he's busy with transcribing Gregorian chants from Latin to English (he has over 2,000 original transcriptions in his apartment), managing the halfway house that helps him make ends meet, and maintaining a website. After lunch at 12:30, he gives himself an hour of rest before he gets back to work. Evening prayer is at 5, followed by supper and prayer again at 8. By 8:30, he's in bed.
How does he keep a schedule, when most days only Fred, his dog, is watching? The same way telecommuters do - loads of self-discipline. "Hermits don't punch time clocks, they just don't," he says.
Of course, being a hermit is more than a job. Ultimately, it's a grueling test of faith and spirituality. "You have to be very psychologically healthy to do this," says Brother Randy.
Still, Bourgeault believes that the impulse to be a hermit exists in everyone, however latent. In the same vein, one who answers the call to this way of life, she says, should avoid becoming engrossed in his or her own image as a hermit.
"You become a hermit to realize that we are one .... If you're out there to be different from other people ..., you're not going to last long," she says.