The New Urban Hermit

When the modern eremitical life features in “The Saturday Evening Post”, times have certainly changed!
“During the years he was a hermit, Roger Cunningham followed a rigid and self-imposed daily schedule. He began the morning by walking to the nearby general store for coffee. “I had promised my mother that I would have regular contact with someone each day,” he says. “She was concerned I’d be too isolated.” Then, back in his hermitage, a farm near Nicholville, New York, he began 45 minutes of Zen meditation at 7:00. After breakfast, he worked alone in some of the 50 separate gardens that constitute his farm. Then came a lunch break, followed by more gardening. He maintained silence throughout, with no use of the phone, radio, or TV, which ensured, he says, that “everything I did was in the same frame of mind.” After dinner, he allowed himself some phone calls and blogging in the evening. The day ended for Cunningham with a final 45-minute session of meditation before bed. One day a week he devoted to work on the nonprofit organization he directed that distributed produce from his gardens to food banks in the area.
Sr Laurel 2
Across the country, Sister Laurel O’Neal, who is a member of the Camaldolese Benedictine order, follows a different hermit’s routine. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in California’s populous Bay Area. She attends morning mass, sometimes runs errands in the afternoons, gives spiritual direction to clients in personal meetings, blogs, and plays violin in an orchestra every week. But most of her time, as someone officially designated a hermit by her order, she spends in contemplation and prayer.

Like Cunningham and O’Neal, many modern hermits—people who make the silence of solitude, and the spiritual contemplation it allows, a central part of their existence—seem determined to shatter our preconceptions of how hermits live. Many reside in or near towns and cities, support themselves with some kind of work, and mix at least occasionally with other people. Most importantly, they bear no resemblance to the misanthropes, survivalists, and social outcasts and failures we sometimes associate with hermit life.

On the contrary, today’s hermits lay claim to old spiritual traditions. Like early Chinese sages and medieval Christian monks who found enlightenment in solitude, modern hermits make time for assiduous prayer and lengthy spiritual contemplation. They have reclaimed the ancient Greek root of the word hermit—eremia, meaning desert, drawing from the experiences of Saint Anthony and other early Christians who discovered the divine in desert isolation. Nowadays few hermits live in the desert, but they hear the same siren call. “That call is so imperative you have little hope of ignoring it,” reports one solitary who wrote in Raven’s Bread, an internationally distributed newsletter for hermits. “But once embraced, there is true joy (after many inner battles) as you find your true center and heart’s desire.”….

It’s an old impulse. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s best-known seekers of solitude, in the 19th century. Living in the 1840s in a cabin he built on Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Thoreau maintained his close ties with family and friends as he made time to be alone and study his place in the natural world. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” he wrote. He believed he could emerge from his two-year solitude “a more perfect creature, fitted for a higher society.”
Thoreau physically distanced himself from society, but many contemporary hermits do not. “Living separate from society doesn’t mean never seeing anybody,” Fredette, herself a former hermit, explains. “On the other hand, having a TV running all day is not helpful to the hermit life. It involves wanting a simplicity of life, and it demands self-discipline and a positive self-image. When you’re living alone, there’s only one person to deal with all day, so you’d better like yourself.” …..

Instead of those stereotypes, hermitic life requires a temperament that can let go of the world’s expectations and one’s own craving to make a mark on society. “Your self-discipline has to be mature—there’s nobody to tell you it’s time to pray or write or that you should have been in bed hours ago,” O’Neal says. Just as important is the ability to discover and stay in touch with a transcendent motivation to do what the rest of the world finds unimportant or absurd. “You have to live without a lot of external gratification. There’s not much outside validation in being a hermit.”

That doesn’t mean hermit life is unpleasant. “For me it was like a vacation, not at all difficult,” says Cunningham, who has always enjoyed solitude. He decided to end his hermit existence when his nonprofit work grew too demanding, and he again felt the longing to travel. He now lives alone on a 20-foot boat, based in Key West in the winter. In the summer, he sails around New England. He still has plenty of solitude, but the intensity of his spiritual Zen practice has lessened.

The attraction of hermit life, Karen Fredette says, “always flares up when the world is in turmoil. Hermits are at the hub of a whirling wheel, and they help to hold civilization together.” Maybe we need hermits now more than ever.”

“The New Urban Hermit”
By Jack El-Hai In Issue: May/June 2013

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