The Canonical Status of the Hermit

Hermits are, by their very nature, a problem for the Church as an institution. Typically eccentric individualists, they neither require nor seek bureaucratic authorization or supervision, and tend to be resistant to rules and regulations. The earliest of the Hermits were what one might call “self defined” – they went into the desert and lived as Hermits. They sought neither permission nor blessing nor recognition. Originally the Church seems to have adopted the “ignore them and they’ll go away” approach. It was only when people felt attracted by the Hermits and sought their teaching, counsel and prayer that they came to represent a problem. Not unlike the Russian starets (Russian: стáрец, fem. стáрица), an individual to whom high spiritual status, authority and wisdom was attributed by the people regardless of whether he or she had any formal recognition from the Church.
hermit edge
One institutional response was to require Hermits to become Monks or Nuns and to live within (or at least on the edge of) formal, canonical communities. They therefore fell under the established canonical rules and procedures and authorities. This was not only the Roman Catholic response. The Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, has in modern times required that a Hermit be an old and experienced member of a monastery, the Hermit being re-defined as some sort of advanced monk.

This led, more or less, to the apparent disappearance of the Hermit. Institutionalization is the very antithesis of the eremitical life. There is nothing wrong with, and much good about, coenobitic monasticism. It is just not the life of the Hermit. Unseen, unknown and unrecognized (all entirely appropriate eremitical characteristics!) Hermits continued to live the life of the Desert.

In modern times, in the world of mass communication, the existence these “relics” of the ancient deserts became more widely known. Once again, the institution of the Church was confronted with the (apparent) problem of the eccentric individualist who appeared to have some religious status by charism rather than by official appointment.

Rome sought to deal with this in the case of Hermits who did not desire to belong to a coenobitic religious order (for example Benedictines, Cistercians, Trappists), or to an eremitically oriented religious order (for example Carthusian, Camaldolese), by the provision in the Code of Canon Law 1983 regarding the Consecrated Life (canon 603) which stated: “A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.” Roman Catholic Hermits can thus be “certified” (as it were) and specifically subject to ecclesiastical authority, or “independent” and subject to no ecclesiastical authority beyond that which applies to all (lay) members of the Church.

The Rudder (Pedalion)(Greek: Πηδάλιον) is a codification of Orthodox Canon law by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. This is the title page of the 5th edition (1908).

The Canons of Orthodoxy (which really does not have a system such as could be described as “Canon Law”) are more or less chaotic, and make no specific provision in relation to Hermits.

In Orthodoxy, the canonical status of Hermits will essentially vary between:

(i) Hermits who are neither clergy nor religious (monks or nuns) and who are living according to a private rule of life, and therefore subject to legitimate ecclesiastical authority as members of the laity;

(ii) Hermits who are religious (monks or nuns) and who are additionally living according to a private rule of life, and therefore subject to legitimate ecclesiastical authority as monks or nuns (that is, to their Abbots and Bishops);

(iii) Hermits who are clergy (essentially, Deacons or Priests)and who are living according to a private rule of life as Hermits, and therefore subject to legitimate ecclesiastical authority as members of the clergy;

To which imaginative Orthodox Canonists might add:

(iv) Hermits who (regardless of their ecclesiastical status) have been accepted as Hermits by the relevant episcopal authority. There is nothing in the Orthodox Canons preventing a Bishop from blessing someone as a Hermit on such conditions as he determines, or blessing the establishment of a Hermitage. As is the case with Roman Catholic Canon Law, there is no prescribed rite for either the blessing of a Hermit, or of a hermitage.

In some ways, the eremitical life can be easier in Orthodoxy, not just because of the chaotic Canonical situation, but because the definition of the religious life (i.e. monks and nuns) has always been more fluid. There are no religious orders as such which a monk or nun is required to or can join and, accordingly, there is no reason why a monk or nun must live in community. It is traditionally possible for a monk to live in his own home (for example, the hesychasterion) or in a house with only one or two others (for example, the skete), or to live (with or without monastic profession) a religious life giving service to the community (for example, the poustinik).

The model most closely fitting that of the modern Orthodox urban Hermit is the hesychasterion which is a small cell or hermitage where intensive hesychasm is practiced, distinct from the cenobitic hesychastic life of a monastery. Legally and canonically, a hesychasterion is a hermitage established with the blessing of the diocesan bishop but owned by the monastics of the hermitage, as distinct from a monastery, which is owned by the bishop.


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