Should Hermits Be More Visible?

“Hermits should get stuck in” from “The Guardian”

Hermits can act as a valuable reminder of the spiritual dimension of life – but what’s the point of them if they’re hidden away?

Naseem Khan Friday 11 June 2010 09.00 BST

It came as something of a surprise to learn that there could be around 200 hermits living in the British Isles. Or so it would seem from the membership of the Fellowship of Solitaries. Karen Markham’s attempts to resist eviction from her isolated cottage lifted the issue of withdrawal and the invisible 200 briefly above the radar, before they all sank back yet again into their desired oblivion. But in that time, it made me wonder about the place of hermits. The role has a quaint and rather fusty quality about it, even though the Fellowship of Solitaries insists that there is nothing odd about it at all. Put simply, what is their point?

If hermits are unknown and invisible, isn’t their purpose eradicated? Or is invisible austerity enough? Maybe practices being carried out faithfully somewhere can have an impact somehow, mysteriously. There is an argument that prayer for instance can have an effect even if a person is not aware of being prayed for. I am usually more than ready to follow Hamlet and agree that there are more things in heaven and earth than philosophy can dream of. But I did have a tremor of disbelief when the Hindu sage I once interviewed claimed the austerities he practised would have the result of preventing world war.
It’s an intriguing debating point – whether anyone can argue the unperceived has an effect. But nevertheless, I find I want my hermits to be obvious: to be firmly located in the heart of society. A hermit performs a social function as well as a religious one and if he or she is not a present point of reference, what’s the wider use? Wealthy landowners in the 18th century had a vague inkling of this when they installed theatrically shaggy hermits in grottoes they had had built specially in wild corners of their estates. These were the celeb hermits of their day, or the equivalent of the mass-produced Buddhas that turn up in furniture shops and garden centres. They provided a fake patina of virtue and spirituality. We need something grittier and more real, dealing with and sharing the struggles and reverses of the average daily life.

I like the contemplatives who live on housing estates and who are regularly there – day in, day out – presenting an alternative. It’s not outré like Simeon Stylites on his pillar (whose celebrity status encouraged a host of imitators to construct their own pillars). It’s ordinary. I can imagine myself mildly and compassionately chastised as I raced past with my bags of unnecessary shopping and my feverish multitasking. I would like to hear that unspoken “Why?” emanating from behind an eloquent closed door.

This is one of the values of the Ramadan fast (that I intend to keep again this year). Here in East London the spiritual dimension of life raises its head quietly and non-flamboyantly. Look out of the window before dawn and you can see pinpricks of light coming on, one after the other, in tower blocks. And you know that someone there is rousing themselves and preparing to put religious principle at the centre of their life that day. It is sobering and it is moving. And it acts as a beacon, in the way I believe a hermit should.

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