Financing The Hermit
How is the life of the Hermit to be financially supported?
The earliest Hermits (including the Desert Fathers and Mothers) sought to be entirely self-sustaining, essentially by growing or collecting such food as they could and/or selling or (more often) trading the fruits of their labours (like basket weaving) in return for the minimal needs of their lives.
Some Hermits lived, in part, according to a model characteristic of the Buddhist monk (although obviously they would not have seen it that way!): they passively accepted such necessities of life as were offered to them.
Some Hermits (notably stylites, dendrites, and anchorites) were in a more difficult situation: the very nature of their modes of life made any form of self-sufficiency all but impossible. They were usually dependent upon gifts offered to them. In some cases (which some of us would regard as placing them outside the eremitical tradition) they even had servants! This remains the case, more or less, with the semi-eremitical Carthusians, with food (and other necessities) being delivered to their cells by “servants” (although not so described).
In the contemporary revival and/or rediscovery of the eremitical life a variety of approaches has been taken. Sometimes these are taken in combination.
Probably the majority of contemporary Hermits are semi-coenobitic and live effectively in communities in which they practice, to varying degrees, the eremitical tradition, and are supported by the community in which they live and/or by the Church within which that community exists. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Carmelites and Carthusians fall into this category. In some cases, the community itself engages in self-supporting work (for example, producing goods or offering retreats). More traditionalist Hermits are happy to describe this as a semi-eremitical life, but not, strictly, the life of the traditional Hermit.
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by engaging in (usually part-time or casual) employment, not incompatible with the life of the Hermit. For the first part of my life as a Hermit, I supported myself by holding two part-time positions (one academic, one quasi-judicial), which occupied no more than one third of each week throughout the year.
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by engaging in work producing income that does not require them to leave their Hermitages (or not to leave the Hermitage for any significant periods): for example, craft work, icon painting, calligraphy, writing, proof-reading and editing, or web design. The computer and the internet have provided far greater opportunities for self-supporting Hermits in the modern world than has been previously available. Hermits in rural areas may be able to produce food not only to meet their own needs, but for sale or trade to meet other needs.
This work could (and does) include occasional lectures, workshops and retreats, and pastoral counselling and spiritual direction/guidance. The essential question is the extent to which such work takes the Hermit away from the Hermitage and interrupts the eremitical life.
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by using funds acquired prior to entering the eremitical life (for example, savings, superannuation or investments) or income generated from a previous career (for example, royalties or a pension).
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by using assets acquired in life prior to becoming a Hermit: for example, letting out rooms in the Hermitage (provided that this does not interfere with the life of the Hermit).
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by engaging in activities for which they are not paid, but for which they are given in return the necessities of life (for example, caretaking a property in return for food, utilities and basic food).
Some modern Hermits are self-supporting by living on income from social security payments. This can be a controversial matter! The idea that a Hermit can accept what is effectively payment from the State to live as a Hermit conflicts with the very basis of the life of the Hermit. Obviously, someone in receipt of a State pension because of age or disability is not being paid to live as a Hermit, but is receiving a payment to which he or she (and all others of the same age or disability) are entitled. A Hermit claiming unemployment benefit is, essentially, perpetrating a fraud: the Hermit is not “unemployed”! He or she is choosing not to seek secular employment in order to live as a Hermit.
Some modern Hermits depend upon financial support from others. This is a controversial matter! Occasional donations and/or gifts in kind are not particularly contentious. Reimbursement of actual expenses (for example, travelling and accommodation costs) is not generally problematic. Donations in return for prayers is much more so. Prayer is an integral part of the life of the Hermit: on what basis can a “fee” (even if described as a “donation”) be claimed to offer prayers? The real issue here is that a (real) Hermit cannot allow himself or herself to become the equivalent of an “ornamental Hermit” – that is, someone who is paid to be a Hermit.
In some cases, Hermits may have accommodation that is provided by the financial support of others, but is not (and cannot be) the private property of the Hermit. For example, a Hermitage may be purchased by a legal corporation or trust, and the Hermit may be given the life to (for example) a life tenancy of the Hermitage without any person property rights in the property.
The situation of the contemporary urban Hermit is more difficult and complex. It is generally not possible to live (at no cost) in an inner-city “cave” and be supported by selling (for example) baskets on the footpath! Even the urban Hermit who owns his or her own Hermitage will have to meet a range of expenses relating to the Hermitage (including rates, taxes, utilities, insurance, maintenance and repairs). Many of those expenses are neither within the Hermit’s control nor even predictable (for example, utility costs). There are also likely to be personal expenses (for example, health insurance and health care costs).
Even in the urban Hermitage (depending upon its physical nature) there can be possibilities for “urban agriculture” – growing some food to contribute to self-sufficiency.
A person considering living as a Hermit outside an established community needs to give careful and realistic consideration to the (perhaps tedious and “worldly” but nevertheless essential) questions of financial and other forms of support prior to committing to the eremitical life.
One the very few books on the life of the Hermit that pays appropriate attention to practical matters is: Paul Fredette and Karen Karper Fredette “Consider the Ravens. On Contemporary Hermit Life” [iUniverse Inc, Bloomington, 2011] – see chapter 6: “Practical Points” pp. 155-206.