The Modern Hermit Living in an End-of-terrace House

BBC Radio recently broadcast a program: “Living Alone Well: Hardeep Singh Kohli explores solo living and religion” which included an interview with a modern urban Hermit, Rachel Denton.
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“Nestled beyond extensive farmland in Lincolnshire and a series of seemingly infinite narrow lanes, lies a red brick, end-of-terrace, ex-council house – home to one of Britain’s hermits.
Dressed simply in a long tabard, white top and skirt, and leaning on a twisted walking stick, Rachel Denton looks almost timeless.

But this 50-year-old woman is all about the present and celebrates a life of solitude, silence and prayer, using digital technology to maintain her vows and her hermitage.
“Part of me would love to live in a cave on a mountain and see nobody ever and not have a Facebook and Twitter account, but the reality is that if I’m to earn my own living, technology enables me to do that.”

A teacher for 15 years, culminating in a deputy headship in Cambridgeshire, Rachel gave it all up 12 years ago for a life of contemplative silence as a Roman Catholic hermit.
The word hermit derives from the Greek term eremite, meaning ‘of the desert’. Hermits have inspired literature and popular culture throughout the centuries, from medieval romances and Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, to Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and even Star Wars and Monty Python.

Rachel’s own brand of hermitage requires a degree of self-sufficiency. She grows her own vegetables and eats a lot of scrambled eggs thanks to her two chickens. To generate income, she runs a calligraphy and stationery workshop from home. Hi-tech digital literacy underpins this singular way of life, linking Rachel to the outside world, facilitating her business and allowing her to maintain relationships with family and friends.
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Although she has withdrawn to a solitary life, Rachel still places herself within the world community. She has 86 followers on Twitter, and will tweet several times a month – social media is a vital link to the outside world. Her twitter page reads: “Tweets are rare but precious.” Far from being a reclusive character, Rachel is warm, highly articulate and positively chatty.

“Nobody was interested in me in the slightest until I became a hermit,” she laughs.
“It’s partly because it’s rebellious. It’s saying I’m not going to conform. It’s also because solitude is something many people are frightened of but fascinated by. “It’s a bit like death. It’s out of their experience and they want to know what it’s like.”

In contrast to an uneventful, dull or even sad life some might imagine, Rachel experiences living alone as a joyous adventure. “It is a challenge all the time”, she explains. “It’s exciting in its own way, exploring something that not many people have experienced. There is this sense of adventure. Of going places that are untouched almost.”
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Rachel has been drawn to the solitary life ever since she was a child. When she was young she was hard of hearing. She relished the security and contentment of her own quiet space over the rough-and-tumble of her five noisy siblings in their three-bedroom semi-detached home in Stockport. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Rachel later spent a year as a Carmelite nun, which introduced her to silence and solitude but also to communal living. “There was an emphasis on solitude but it is a community way of life. I found that incredibly difficult. “I realised there was a sense of death about it for me. But this idea was planted. I suspected deep down that if you took away all the fancy and the frippery and the parties and the activity, just to be alive was enough. In Carmel, I discovered it was, but not with 16 other women in the building!”

It was a priest who finally helped Rachel recognise her vocation. Chatting about hermitage one day, he observed that her face lit up when she spoke about it. He suggested she explore it.

Rachel now spends her time living simply in prayer and contemplation, with her cats, chickens and vegetable patch. She sees friends and family once or twice a year and even teaches one-to-one, but she always returns from the world to her solitary place to “wait to recognise God”.

There is no guidebook to hermitage. No official hermit rules. In fact, Rachel says that when she asked the bishop if she could take vows as a hermit, his first reaction was that the Catholic Church did not do hermits. Only after being shown the reference in canon law did the bishop change his mind. Rachel then took her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; which she interprets as simplicity, solitude and silence. She is now officially a hermit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nottingham. But she admits, that although she is guided by her rule of life, there are times when she has to make it up as she goes along.
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“It’s part of the maverick way of hermitage that each hermit does it their own way. There is no discipleship except of Jesus. Hermitage is within each one of us and for some people like me, it becomes a way of life.”

She has three rules for her life as a hermit. One is to live simply in solitude and silence, staying and returning there in so far as duties permit. The second is to earn a sufficient living, trying to maintain that solitude and silence. And the third is to pray every day.
Much of her work and contact with family and friends can be carried out online.
While practical reasons take her out and about, normally at least once a week, she can also go for days without speaking and says solitude gives her energy and happiness.

“I feel I’m rejuvenated to go back out into the world. I get great joy from the short periods that I spend out in the world. But it’s because it’s so short,” she says. “They say as you grow into hermitage you carry it with you. I always thought that meant I’d be sitting very quietly, thinking contemplative thoughts, even though people were around me. But the hermitage I carry with me is this outwardness, this ability to be with people much more readily.
“It’s about sitting on the bus and watching other people, very ordinary people and thinking how wonderful their lives are. It’s like you’re given new antennae to recognise what’s beautiful in the world.”

“You can see an old man counting his change, checking the bus man’s given him the right money and there’s something very lovely and exquisite in the way he does it, his actions and the thought processes and the smile of satisfaction. And it’s just that sense of being able to see the best in almost every situation and realise it’s a gift.”
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After some initial anxiety, Rachel’s family is now supportive. Official recognition by the church has also helped them come to terms with her choice. That and social media.
In the past, when Rachel would turn up once or twice a year to Sunday mass, she found her friends had little in common with her.

However, she says thanks to Facebook she is now able to view their lives from a distance, interact from time to time and maintain a conversation. She knows when a friend has written a book or had a baby. She has a connection to the world – and to her customers – through social media.

Rachel likens her journey to that of the desert fathers – the early Christian hermits who wandered the Egyptian desert. She describes her home as “the hut at the edge of the desert”. Unlike those who might fear an increasingly solitary existence, Rachel embraces it enthusiastically. “I feel thrilled about it,” she smiles. When asked to sum up what living alone brings her, Rachel is unequivocal.”It gives me gratitude. It makes me grateful from the moment I wake up till the moment I go to bed again.”

For Rachel Denton, see further:


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