Brother Aidan: Orthodox Hermit and Iconographer

“A cold coming we had of it and just the most unexpected time of year for such a journey. Spring had already begun, yet here we were floundering knee-deep in snow, the photographer looking decidedly sore-footed and refractory, miles up a farm track in the most desolate part of Shropshire. It was just the sort of place one would expect to find a hermit.
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Fortunately, Brother Aidan is the kind of hermit who has a telephone and a four-wheel-drive. “You look like Russian pilgrims,” he said, striding through the drifts to our rescue. “I like it, though. I must say I don’t feel like a proper monk until I’m snowed in.”
I first met Brother Aidan, who is a Greek Orthodox monk in his early forties, about a year ago on Mount Athos, the remote peninsula in northern Greece that is the spiritual centre of the Orthodox Church. He had returned to spend Easter at the monastery at which he had done his training, but told me that otherwise he lived alone in a hermitage high up on the Welsh border.

I knew that there had been a strong tradition of the eremitic life within the church since the time of the Desert Fathers and that, in past centuries, Athonite monks had spent decades living on their own in caves, but I was curious as to how such a way of life could be fitted into the modern world and at the motives that lay behind such a decision. Now, with a bump up and over the buried track, here I was at the Hermitage of SS Cuthbert and Anthony….

His future home was a dilapidated barn that had once housed hay upstairs and cattle in what is now his living-room. But his monastic apprenticeship, in which he took turns in the kitchen and the fields, has made him an accomplished all-round handyman. The former byre is now a snug den, the walls lime-washed in ochre, the floor set with a pebble mosaic. Much of the simple wooden furniture he made himself; the stout front door is fashioned from coffin oak.
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But it is the transformation that he has wreaked on a barn next door that sets him apart from any other bachelor buried deep in the countryside. Skirting round the back of what was once a pigsty, I came to a large wooden door. Beyond it was the most breathtaking sight – a small, but gorgeously frescoed, Orthodox chapel. Lined up along the walls like some heavenly football team were icons of a dozen saints, while from the ceiling Christ gazed down. “I like to think of Him as the conductor,” said Brother Aidan, who is one of only a handful of iconographers at work in Britain….
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Orthodox monks often make good plantsmen and, refreshed by a cup of jasmine tea, Brother Aidan was eager to show me his garden. The hermitage sits some 1,500ft up in the middle of what is destined to become a wild-flower meadow. The ground dips and swells away from it and rises again to meet Wales. Aside from a few farm buildings, the landscape is empty as far as the eye can see.

“I’m very interested in the hermitage using the land in an ecological way,” said Brother Aidan, plunging off down the hill. “My teacher, Father Barnabas, used to tell me that, if you wish to know God, then you must also know the earth of which you are made.” He has planted some 5,000 trees, mainly native hardwoods, around the house and has also dug a large pond to promote water life. “Gradually, I want to have more shrines around the place,” he said, “so that it is not just nature by itself, but nature directing us to God.”
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Nothing exemplifies better this close connection between the natural and the divine than the small retreat he has built on stilts over a stream. He bounded off towards it, heedless of the snow, as I stumbled along in his wake, feeling a little like Roo to his Tigger. “Only children – or adults who feel like children – are allowed here,” he shouted back at me, a great smile on his face. At once, I saw what it is that he has rediscovered in this place – the ability to take uncomplicated delight, even joy, in the simplest experience.

Brother Aidan was born in Surrey, but grew up in New Zealand, where he was originally a teacher and then a sculptor. As we thawed out by the stove back at the hermitage, he told me that it was art that had originally drawn him to Orthodoxy. “I was a Christian,” he said, “and I was trying to find a way of marrying heaven and earth, spirit and flesh, inner and outer, in my work.

“Then a friend told me that he thought icons managed to do this. After a week studying them in a monastery, I realised that they were not just an artistic exercise, but that behind them lay this whole spiritual life. I learnt that the aim of human existence is what we call deification, that is, to be united with God. To be a Christian wasn’t just to follow Christ or to follow certain rules and obligations, but to have a nuptial union with him.” At the time, he had a girlfriend – “we would probably have got married” – and I would judge that he is gregarious. “But deep down in me, I realised that I had this great eros – this intense longing – for union with God,” he said, “and that the best way to fulfil this was to become a monk.”
He made it sound like the most natural thing in the world and, by contrast with his extrovert nature outdoors, spoke with almost preternatural calm, holding each question up to the light, examining it with steady eyes. He does not pretend he is a sage, but it is clear that he has searched himself deeply and found truth there.
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Having become an Orthodox monk, he became a hermit almost by chance. “It’s just the way Providence worked,” he insisted. “I had expected to be in a monastic community, but the ones in Britain were full and, since it seemed best to my spiritual father and myself that I stay in this country, I eventually came to live here.

“I think there was a danger that I would have pushed myself in a self-willed way to become a hermit anyway, so I’m glad it happened this way instead, by God’s providence. For reasons unknown to me, this is the best way for me to be purified, to get closer to God.”

His daily routine is simple and unvarying. He wakes at 3.30 in the morning and prays in the chapel until seven. Then he might read or write until nine, before starting work on an icon in his small studio. He makes the paints himself from natural pigments, working on top of the traditional base of 20 layers of gesso – a mix of chalk powder and rabbit-skin glue.
Icons are becoming more frequent in churches. He has made one for Lichfield Cathedral and is currently hard at work on a set for a Ukrainian priest. Towards the end of June, he will be helping to organise several exhibitions of icons in Shrewsbury – one at Rowley’s House museum – to mark the millennium.
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He works until it gets dark and then, after another service, retires early to bed. Sometimes, he drives into Shrewsbury to do his shopping or to attend church, but otherwise, while not a recluse, he keeps to himself. I asked him if he ever got lonely….

“We are all made in God’s image,” he said, “so a hermit who has seen no one for 30 years still longs for company. Therefore, he seeks the company of God and the angels.
“Once, when I came out of a service, it was pitch black and the stars were out. I looked at them and thought: ‘The stars are always there, but in the daytime the sun shines so I’m aware only of that.’ A hermit is a bit like someone who doesn’t have the sun – the bright company of people – to distract him, so he notices instead the more distant suns, the stars – the saints and the angels.”

We paused for lunch. I had brought him a present of a cheese, but because it was Lent, he was on a vegan fast and it would have to wait until after Easter. We settled instead for a meal of rice, tomatoes and digestive biscuits. Aside from cooking, he has few other distractions. He does not listen to the news or buy newspapers, and I asked him what he now made of society from his vantage point outside it….
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I asked what benefits he draws from such silence. “It’s taught me three things,” he said. “First, compassion. Second, the beauty of the heart. And third, how to play. Father Simeon, a Peruvian hermit, once told me that a monk must learn how to play like a child. He must learn to be entirely in God’s hands, not to worry about things all the time.”

His peace is nevertheless frequently disturbed by visitors, both those curious about Orthodoxy and others with social problems. Although he certainly does not want to be regarded as a curio and still less as a guru, I am sure he has wise and warm advice to offer, yet he remains slightly perplexed that people should seek him out. “I’m here to repent of my own sins,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m a monk to be a teacher, so it surprises me in a way. People come and think you’re a doctor, but I tell them I’m a patient in the hospital, too. I’m aware that I’m just a postman; I’ve got nothing to give – what people want is God.”

That his advice should seem worth taking, however, is a reminder that hermits are not misanthropes. Rather, they are more aware than most of our common humanity. The American hermit Thomas Merton wrote earlier this century: “The solitary is one who is aware of solitude in himself as a basic and inevitable human reality, not just as something that affects him.
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“Hence, his solitude is the foundation of a deep, pure and gentle sympathy with all other men . . . and the doorway by which he enters into the mystery of God and brings others into that mystery.” As Brother Aidan put it, in the words of a saying he likes: “Trees being motionless, birds come to them.”

We pack up our things to go, stopping only for a snowball fight in the garden before we say our farewells. “I think God has made the seasons the length they are,” he said, looking at the snow, “so that it’s just long enough for you to forget what summer is like when it finally arrives.” With that, the sun comes out and he slings his donkey-hair bag over his shoulder before setting off down the track to collect his post. I wave and leave him there, high on his hill, alone and in love with God.

From Electronic Telegraph: The hermit next door Posted on April 22, 2000 in Features Published by The Electronic Telegraph, April 22, 2000 “The hermit next door” By James Owen
http://archive.ocl.org/?id=8339

The Monastery of St Antony and St Cuthbert was originally a hermitage within the Romanian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, high up in the South-west Shropshire hills. It is situated in Lower Gittenshay Cottage, an outlier of an abandoned village known as the Paddock, on the eastern flank of the Stiperstones, in the South-west Shropshire hills.
In 1992, Brother Aidan, a solitary monk, supported by what later became the Stiperstones Trust, a registered charity, purchased the house and land and gradually restored the buildings, at the heart of which was a miner’s cottage and outbuildings. One of these became an orthodox church, fully frescoed with iconostasis and three original icons. At 1,273 ft above sea level, this church is one of the highest if not the highest in England.
http://www.orthodoxmonastery.co.uk/Orthodox_Monastery/Welcome.html

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