Hermits: Insights of Solitude

See http://www.screenvue.com/MovieDetails.aspx?idClip=9666b2be-9062-4fc5-86ec-7d6ba15f16d1
peter france
A lively, vivid, and moving history of hermits, religious and secular, and the instincts that drove them to embrace solitude. France deeply attracted to the solitary life himself, began his investigation because he wondered “if solitude confers insights not available to society.” He traces the origins of a belief in isolation as part of a meditative life to China in the sixth century b.c., when the newly emergent faith of Taoism taught that “it is by withdrawing rather than by asserting ourselves, through retreat rather than pursuit . . . that we acquire wisdom.” This belief was similar to the ideas of the Desert Fathers, devout Christians who, in the centuries immediately after the rise of that faith, retreated to harsh landscapes well away from society, where they could wrestle with the meaning of their faith and the stubborn appeals of the flesh. France devotes a chapter to the Russian startsy, revered spiritual figures who spent years apart from society in an attempt to attain serenity–but who then often rejoined society to share what they had learned of the deeper instincts of faith. There are studies of, among others, Henry David Thoreau, the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, and Thomas Merton, whose writings offer a contemporary insight into “the nature of solitude, its risks and its benefits.” The book concludes with a chapter on the poet Robert Lax, who has lived a largely solitary, reflective life on the Greek island of Patmos for four decades. Writing in a prose of great clarity, and drawing heavily on the precise, powerful reflections of solitaries and religious hermits, France offers a succinct survey of the forces that have driven men and women to separate themselves from society to pursue their faith, and argues persuasively that solitude still can, in our relentlessly crowded, anxious, hustling age, offer unique spiritual benefits and insights. (Book-of-the-Month Club alternate/Quality Paperback Book Club selection).
robert lax 2

In this inspiring book, Peter France, who spends much of his time living in a semi-eremitic manner on the Greek island Patmos, explores the history of hermits and uncovers the truths they found in their solitude. This rich compendium provides engaging accounts of the lives of famous hermits and hermitic movements–from the Greek Cynics to the Desert Fathers to more modern seekers such as Thoreau, Thomas Merton, and the American poet Robert Lax. As an antidote to disillusionment with the modern world and as a guide to rediscovering our true selves, Hermits will not fail to provide reassuring enlightenment.
From: http://www.amazon.com/Hermits-Insights-Solitude-Peter-France/dp/0312194633

hermits book
In Hermits: Insights of Solitude (1996), Peter France brings to life over 2,000 years of hermit history, from the Desert Fathers, Leonid, Macarius, Ambrose, Ramakrishna, Thoreau, de Foucauld, and Merton to the modern day Robert Lax.

France’s introduction explains that “many thousands of recluses have lived their solitary lives and gone to their graves in silence.” His book is about those who passed on their experiences to visitors, preserved their thoughts in writing, or gave up solitude to present their views to the world. Hence, interspersed between the narratives is an intellectual study, a personal collection of quotes from hermits that explain their reasoning, purpose, philosophies, and daily life.

Typically society views hermits as anti-social, but hermitage is about living in loneliness rather of being loners or outcasts. Some live in austere conditions, some live totally alone, and some live in monastic communities. Some take a life of hermitage seasonally – either in summer or winter – and some are static (living in caves) while others are migratory travellers. Some speak often, while others are infrequent talkers – “to speak little is natural.” The common thread is that theirs is a contemplative life.

“Paradoxically, these men and women who fled from human society developed, in their solitude, a uniquely subtle awareness of human psychology.” Hermitage is therefore not seen as an escape from life’s problems, for “if you haven’t first conducted yourself well among men, you won’t conduct yourself well in solitude.” Hence, often solitude is not a permanent separation from society, but a preparation for taking an active part in it.

This is an interesting insight into solitude and aloneness from a philosophical perspective that entices the reader into their world.

From: http://martinasblogs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/hermits-insights-of-solitude-by-peter.html

Applying the principle ‘Life is uncertain: eat dessert first’, I began this illuminating if somewhat unlikely book with the last chapter – the interview with the American poet Robert Lax who lives on the Island of Patmos. It’s that sort of book. Unless you are heavily into the chronology of history, this book is best seen, I suggest, as a mosaic of the spiritual life across time, geography, culture and an infinite variation in the human spirit. It doesn’t much matter which part of the mosaic you look at first, it is certain to lead you on to a new fragment equal in its capacity to communicate insight and recognition.

The book begins with a very telling overview of the philosophy and living out of the life of solitude from the time of the Tao te Ching in 6th century China through Classical Greece, the Desert Fathers and the Russian startsy, before moving to portraits of a selection of individual hermits of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In between the two sections, there is a short interlude about that rather chilling phenomenon of the rationalist mind – the ornamental hermits of late 18th century England. This is where you keep your tame hermit in a custom designed hermitage on your country estate, to impress visitors with the sincerity and validity of your spiritual dimension!

The key to this book is to be found not so much in the title, as in the sub-title: ‘the insights of solitude’. Each chapter contains a treasury of quotations from or about those who have chosen to live for part or most of their adult lives in isolated places in desert or forest. The insights which the author is exploring come both from these quotations and from his own commentary. A universal thread in the counsel cited is commonsense. Starets Macarius sometimes adopts quite an acerbic tone. ‘Can you really think that the inner peace you are seeking depends on the location you finally choose to live in?’ (page 71, The Russian Startsy).

More usually, there is practical wisdom offered with gentle firmness. The heart of the spiritual life is always a partnership with God, a knowing and being known: thence our courage and hope. ‘So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.’ (page 124, Light from the East.)
Peter France lives much of the year on Patmos. He is clearly an author whose communication skills have been finely honed. The text is marked by clarity and warmth, the interpolation of quotation and source documents so skilfully placed that neither original text nor commentary prevails long enough for the work to seem a scholar’s tome.
As a research tool, a source of primary material and a stimulating, valuable read, this is a volume many will be glad to have on their bookshelves.

From http://www.tasmaniananglican.com/ta200011-08/
hermits insights
A convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, France takes the eremitic tradition at face value. He refrains from hunting for subtexts, letting the hermits of history speak for themselves. Here is the Cynic philosopher Diogenes (”Socrates gone mad” Plato calls him) meeting Alexander the Great. When Alexander asks what he can do for him, Diogenes answers, ”Get out of my sunlight.” Here are Lao-tzu (if he ever existed) jettisoning Confucian propriety for a hobo yoga, and Ramakrishna, the Bengali holy man, emerging from a six-month trance bearing the message that we are all drenched in divinity. Here are Moses the black slave, Arsenius the Roman aristocrat and John Colobus the dwarf fleeing the decadence of late antiquity for the wild places of Egypt. Here is Charles de Foucauld, refashioning himself from a self-indulgent 19th-century aristocrat into a wiry St. Francis of the Sahara who gave and ultimately lost his life to the Tuaregs. And here is Thomas Merton, leading 20th-century champion of eremitism, torn by desires for solitude and sociability, silence and self-expression, monastic obedience and beatnik spontaneity.

Reading them, one cannot escape the impression that the hermit sages possess skills of discernment unrivalled by anything psychotherapy has to offer. The soundest are unimpressed by ascetic exertion; as the desert fathers say, going without food and sleep is the easy part. The real trial is acquiring humility and offering hospitality to pilgrims clamouring for practical advice. Those who can endure isolation without going mad turn out to be ideal arbiters for a fractured world. Even the confirmed worldling, France shows, finds hermits irresistible. The Enlightenment, with its cult of reasonableness and sociability, failed to dampen the attraction Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky felt to their hermit saints. For the 18th-century English gentry, the ”ornamental hermit,” complete with hourglass, Bible and skull, was a coveted garden accessory. France quotes a Lancashire gentleman advertising ”a reward of 50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live seven years underground without seeing anything human; and to let his toe and finger nails grow with his hair and beard.”

From http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/10/05/reviews/971005.05zeleskt.html

See http://www.newstatesman.com/node/136497

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