The Sociology of Modern Hermits

Professor Isacco Turina [University of Bologna] has undertaken significant research into modern Hermits.
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For a brief account of Turina’s research, see “Laptops but no beards for new hermits in Italy” in “The Guardian” [13 March 2008] at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/mar/13/italy

“They no longer sit cross-legged in caves, on mountain tops or even in bustling city centres, but hermits are making a comeback in Italy after disappearing early in the last century, a study has claimed.
The archetypal long, unkempt beards are also out of style, the study’s author discovered, since the majority of the 150 or so Catholic hermits now holed up in Italy in search of inner peace are women.
Barbara, a painter, and Valentina, a former modern art dealer, were among those interviewed by Isacco Turina, a sociologist at the University of Bologna, who tracked down 37 hermits, 21 of whom were women. Most were well educated and had decided on a life of prayer, penance and seclusion as they hit middle age.
The majority were former clergy or missionaries. “The number of women reflects the amount of ex-nuns who have sought out a degree of autonomy in life that they could not find before,” said Turina.
Regarded as precursors of the monastic orders, hermits spread across Europe in the dark ages. The hermitic way almost disappeared a century ago before making a comeback in the 1960s, he said. Formal recognition of hermits was granted by the Vatican in 1983 to those who “devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world”. Today bishops will consecrate new hermits in return for vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
“Not everyone applies for this licence from the bishop, but if you do, you also need to agree your new prayer regime with him,” said Turina. “You then reduce your contacts with society, although you can meet people for spiritual dialogue.”
Carlo, a psychiatrist turned hermit in Padua, receives 10 visitors a day.
Turina said abandoned churches were often taken over by hermits, with Tuscany a popular destination – although some were happy to live amid the “loneliness” of big cities. Ex-clergy could often bank on support from their diocese, while lay hermits could rely on pensions or handicraft work carried out between prayers.
“Some are equipped with internet, which doesn’t necessarily disqualify you,” said Turina. “It’s like meeting people. You do it within a spiritual framework.””
Into the Silence A new utopia? A distant reality? Forget it. Hermitage might seem a paradox in our self-celebrating society but it is a growing and fascinating phenomenon, instead. Modern hermits don’t indulge in the search for isolation for social or p
And “Italian women take up the hermit’s life” in “The Daily Telegraph” [22 December 2013] at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1581605/Italian-women-take-up-the-hermits-life.html

“Hermits are making a comeback in Italy, and the majority of them are women, according to a new book. Professor Isacco Turina, a sociologist at the University of Bologna, tracked down 37 hermits for his work: “The New Hermits, The Flight from the World in Modern Italy”.

He said there are now as many as 1000 hermits in Italy, with several hundred more dotted across Europe and the US. However, instead of long, flowing beards and cave dwellings, the modern hermit can usually be found in a city apartment, and is even sometimes connected to the internet for convenience…. However, he added, many have found it is perfectly possible to be totally alone in the middle of a bustling city. Mr Turina said the comeback could be traced to 1983, when the Vatican offered “full recognition” to hermits if they devoted their lives to the solitary “praise of God”….

Mr Turina added that 60 per cent of hermits were female, and that many hermits had dropped out of monasteries and nunneries because they became disillusioned.
“There is a sentiment of protest at the way the Church goes about things,” he said.
The solitary life, he said, often appealed to “avant-garde” worshippers, and several of the hermits he interviewed were artists, architects and writers.
He said most hermits were around 55 years old, and that they had decided to drop out of the rat race when they were “between 35 and 50”.
Hermit tourism is also becoming a fad. A company called Spiritour offers “hermit holidays” in the dunes of Morocco, while Ictus Voyages have a similar retreat in the Sinai desert.”
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Professor Isacco Turina [University of Bologna] paper, “The Hermit’s Knowledge” is available at http://konference.fdvinfo.net/rc33/2004/Data/PDF/stream_02-10.pdf

“The field research we are carrying out deals with contemporary Italian Catholic hermits. We define the hermit as a person living a monastic life out of monastic communities, called coenobiums. By monastic life, we mean a life whose main features are voluntary solitude, prayer and refusal of worldly values as success, money and physical comforts, all this in order to embody a particular religious or moral doctrine. Hermits, who existed irregularly in the history of western Christianity, had almost disappeared from Catholic monasticism in the last two centuries.
The canon law of 1983 establishes them again, under the responsibility of a bishop. Yet, bishops themselves are often quite suspicious about these independent people so difficult to cope with. Being an extreme choice, the eremitical population in Italy is not statistically significant , some 200 or 300 persons. Between September 2002 and October 2003 we met 35 of them(16 males and 19 females), conducting in-depth, semi-directive interviews. We asked them questions about their past life, their eremitical career, their institutional relations with diocese, parish or monastery, their everyday life, their prayer and so on.
Very soon, a contradiction appeared between the strangeness of the quest for social exclusion, which often demands long years of fight against the Church and against one’s relatives, and the simple, repetitious style of hermits’ lives. Reflexivity helped us to clear up the contradiction.
What does an hermit do? We reproduce here the timetable of a 69-year-old woman: at 2.30 a.m. she wakes up to pray and to read spiritual texts; she drinks a coffee; then she reads the Bible for two hours, with a little break to change the flowers on the altar (she has a little chapel in her hermitage); at 5.30 she washes and gets dressed; at 6 she prays again; at 7 she
has breakfast; then she sweeps the floor; at 8.45 she prays; in the morning she goes for a walk, or she goes to the near town to buy what she needs, or she tidies the hermitage up; at 12 she prays again, then she has a frugal lunch and does the washing-up; at 3 p.m. she prays; at 4 she changes her dress, or washes hands and face, and she leaves any other activity to prepare her spirit to the meeting with God; at 5 she prays vespers and she recollects her whole day to verify if she has been right (according to God’s will); at 6.30 she has a frugal supper, followed by the reading of spiritual texts; at 8 she prays for the last time, then she goes to bed.
With few differences in timetable and activities, that’s anyway the normal day of the hermits we met. So, what do they do? Almost nothing: they pray and otherwise they live the life of a lonely housewife. If they are priests, they also celebrate the Mass or meet individuals for the confession or for spiritual advice. Nonetheless, most of their life is prayer, religious reading and domestic work in silence and solitude. But if they do nothing what can we, as sociologists, do with them?
Moreover, if we read the interviews three methodological and epistemological problems suddenly emerge:
1) The first one is strictly sociological: why such a simple behaviour seems so strange and even strongly deviant to the eyes of hermit’s parents and friends and of the institutional Church alike? In spite of canon law, bishops actually are often unwilling to accept them, and families are also distrustful or even hostile to this choice, as they could be if one of their members joined a sect. On the other hand, we could wonder why hermits need to flee the society, since they do nothing illegal nor extraordinary.
2) The second is a practical problem: if we ask the traditional question of descriptive sociology, i.e. “what do they do?”, we find almost nothing to say. Besides, hermits themselves are aware that their actions have no meaning at all and they are ready to admit that.
3) Thirdly, a paradox bewildered us when we saw that all the hermits we met affirmed to feel nearer to the people they left than they could feel when they were with them, and moreover to know humanity, its problems and history, much better than they could do when they had a job, a family, a television and direct relations with people: in a word, they feel to know the world much better than someone living in it.”

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