The Hermit Life in the Christian East

An interesting paper given by His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos: “The Hermit Life in the Christian East” (in “Solitude and Communion, Papers on the Hermit Life given at St. David’s Wales, by Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican Contributors”. ed. A.M. Allchin, Fairacres Publ. no. 66, (SLG Press, Oxford, 1977), pp. 30-47.) from which the following is extracted:

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“The body is one and yet has many limbs, and all these limbs, though many, form a single body.” (I Cor. 12:12) The analogy which St Paul applies here to the life of the Church as a whole can also he applied more specifically to the monastic vocation within the Church. All monks and nuns share the same ascetic call and belong to a single, all-embracing order’ or ‘estate’, yet within that One ‘estate’ there is a wide variety of patterns and a constant flexibility. This variety and flexibility must always be kept in view when considering the position, within the Orthodox monastic framework, of the hermit—of the one who, according to a famous definition by Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399), ‘is separated from all and united to all’.
The wide variety of patterns is reduced by St John Climacus (d. circa 649) to three main types. ‘The monastic way of life’, he says, ‘takes three general forms: either to live in ascetic withdrawal and solitude, or to be a hesychast with one or two companions, or to dwell with patient endurance in a coenobium.’ These three forms–the coenobitic, the eremitic, and the middle or semi-eremitic way of the hesychast who dwells with one or two others—are found at the very outset of Christian monasticism in fourth-century Egypt. St Antony provided in his own persona living icon of the hermit ideal; St Pachomius established the coenobitic pattern; St Ammon at Nitria and St Macarius at Scetis mapped out the intermediate path.
The same three forms can be found, sixteen centuries later, side by side in contemporary Athos. The twenty ruling monasteries exemplify the coenobitic discipline, although in some houses the full strictness of this has been modified by the introduction of the idiorrhvthmic system. The semi-eremitic way (it could with equal appropriateness be styled semicoenobitic’) is found in the little monastic cottages known as ‘kalyvai’ or ‘kellia’, with between two and six brethren, or very occasionally with more than six. In some parts of Athos these kellia stand isolated, while elsewhere they are grouped in monastic villages called ‘sketes’, as at Great St Anne’s or Kapsokalyvia. Finally there are the hermits, a few of them closely dependent on a monastery, others loosely grouped together in what resembles a skete (as at Karoulia), others again living in extreme seclusion, almost entirely hidden, with the path to their cell known perhaps to none save the priest who brings them communion.
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The coexistence of these three forms of the monastic life means that there is more than one way in which a man may prepare to be a hermit. At least three doors of entry into solitude are found in the practice of contemporary Athos. A monk, after living for some years in a monastery, may go with the abbot’s blessing to a kellion, there to follow the semi-eremitic life; and after that he may withdraw into the life of fully eremitic solitude. In such a case he experiences in succession each of the three main forms of the monastic life. This we may call the ‘classic pattern’ of preparation. But there are two other possibilities. A monk may go out from the coenobium to become a hermit, without first living in a semi-eremitic kellion; or he may at the outset enter a semi-eremitic kellion and so become a hermit, without ever having lived in a coenobium. This last course is by far the most usual way of becoming a hermit on Athos today.
When a man goes directly from the monastery to a hermit’s cell, it is probable that he will maintain some continuing link with his previous community. He may return there regularly for the Liturgy; the monastery may provide his basic food supplies; he may even be recalled by the community to live again, temporarily or permanently, within the monastery walls. The hermit who has lived previously in a skete or an isolated kellion is in a different situation. It is true that he is theoretically dependent on a monastery, since the entire territory of Athos is divided between the twenty ruling monasteries, with the result that every semi-eremitic kellion and every hermit is in principle subject to one of these twenty ruling houses. But in practice the bond is not likely to be close. The hermit may of course choose to visit the monastery to attend services, especially at great feasts, but the monastic community is not under any obligation to support him (although in fact it often gives him food), and it cannot require him against his will to move into the monastery.
Between the hermit and the monk in a coenobium there is a plain and manifest distinction. But the line of demarcation is far less sharply drawn between the hermit and the monk following the semi-eremitic way in kellion. The kelliot may for example find himself left alone through the death of his companions, and so may become de facto a solitary, without any deliberate decision on his part. Again, a man who has lived for some years as a hermit may then be joined by disciples; and so, imperceptibly he moves from the solitary to the middle or semi-eremitic state. Such transitions are easily made in the sketes of contemporary Athos. The degree of physical isolation varies greatly in the case of individual hermits as already emphasized, flexibility is the norm. Some hermits live close tc their neighbours and meet them daily; others, because of distance or from personal choice, have virtually no contact with their fellows. There arc even solitaries on Athos today who follow the same way of life as the boskoi [browsers] in primitive monasticism—dwelling with the animals like Adam in Paradise, not building cells but remaining in caves or in the open air, wearing no clothing and eating no cooked food. Although I have not myself seen any such, I have spoken with monks who know about them.
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