Archive for February, 2015

Saint Thalelaues the Hermit of Syria

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2015 by citydesert

February 27 is the Commemoration Saint Thalelaues the Hermit of Syria
“Saint Thalelaeus lived during the fifth century. He was a native of Cilicia (Asia Minor), became a monk at the monastery of St Sava the Sanctified, and was ordained presbyter there. Later on, he moved to Syria, not far from the city of Habala, he found a dilapidated pagan temple surrounded by graves, and he settled there in a tent. This place had a rough reputation, since the unclean spirits residing there frightened travellers and caused them much harm.
Here the monk lived, praying day and night in total solitude. The demons often assailed the saint, trying to terrify him with sights and sounds. But by the power of God the saint ultimately gained victory over the power of the Enemy, after which he was troubled no more. He then intensified his efforts even more: he built a hut, so cramped that it was just possible to get into it, and only with an effort was it possible to raise his head. He lived there for about ten years.
The Lord granted to the ascetic the gift of wonderworking, and his miracles helped him to enlighten the pagan inhabitants. With the help of the inhabitants he converted to Christianity, he demolished the pagan temple, building a church where there were daily services.
St Thalelaeus died in old age in about the year 460. In the book entitled Leimonarion or Pratum [The Meadow], a composition of the Greek monk John Moschus (+ 622). St Thalelaeus is mentioned: “Abba Thalelaeus was a monk for sixty years and with tears never ceased saying, ‘Brethren, God has given us this time for repentance, and we must seek after Him’” (Ch. 59).”

“St. Thalelaeus lived in present-day Turkey in the fifth century. He lived in a small hut that was near a pagan shrine where people came to sacrifice regularly. The pagan priests tried to scare him away, but he stood his ground and converted many who came to the shrine to worship.
He was said to have lived in a barrel for a number of years as a sign of repentance, and to encourage others to turn from their sin.
He lived as a hermit for 60 years, and was known to weep constantly. In fact, he was given the name, “Epiklautos,” which means “weeping much.” He told those who visited him that time was a gift from God for us to use to repent, “and woe be to us if we neglect it.””


Ælfnoth of Stowe, Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2015 by citydesert

February 27 is the Commemoration of Ælfnoth or Alnoth of Stowe, Hermit.
“Ælfnoth or Alnoth (died 700) was an English hermit and martyr. Little is known of his life, though he is mentioned in Jocelyn’s life of Saint Werburgh as a pious neatherd at Weedon, who bore with great patience the ill-treatment of the bailiff placed over him, and who afterwards became a hermit in a very lonely spot, where he was eventually murdered by two robbers. On this ground he was honoured as a martyr; and there was some concourse of pilgrims to his tomb at Stowe near Bugbrooke in Northamptonshire.”

“WEDON, in Northamptonshire, was honoured with a palace of Wulphere, king of Mercia, in the middle of England, and was bestowed by that prince upon his daughter St. Wereburge, who converted it into a monastery. Alnoth was the bailiff of St. Wereburge in that country, and the perfect imitator of her heroic virtues. After her retreat he led an anchoretical life in that neighbourhood, and was murdered by robbers in his solitude. His relics were kept with veneration in the church of the village of Stow, near Wedon. Wilson places his festival on the 27th of February, in the first edition of his English Martyrology, and in the second on the 25th of November. See the life of St. Wereburge, which Camden sent to F. Rosweide, written as it seems by Jocelin. See also Harpsfield, Sæc. 7. c. 23. and Bollandus, p. 684.”

“700 AD. Mercia was the central Kingdom of the Anglo Saxon heptarchy and Weedon is usually considered to be the place nearest to the centre of England. King Wulfere had reluctantly given his only daughter Werburgh permission to enter the convent at Ely to be trained for the religious life, and King Ethelred, who succeeded his brother, thought she would be just the person to oversee the nuns of all the monasteries in the Kingdom of Mercia. He gave his niece lands at Weedon, Trentham and Hanbury on which to build convents.

At Weedon, among the servants of the monastery, there was a herdsman named Alnoth. According to Goscelin in his 11th Century Life of St. Werburgh, he was a man of great piety and, although he was an unlettered serf, he practised his religion with simple devotion. Such men tend to attract to themselves bullying persecution by the more worldly and one day St. Werburgh saw her steward in a violent rage beating Alnoth for some supposed fault or neglect. She was convinced by God that the herdsman was innocent, but instead of using the authority of her birth and position she fell at the feet of the steward pleading with him to be merciful and so shamed him into more Christian and just behaviour.

Alnoth led the life of a hermit in the woods of Stowe near Bugbrooke and there in his solitude he was murdered by some robbers, who infested the wooded country. They could not have killed Alnoth for his wealth because he had none, and the local people were sure that it was hatred of his faith and holiness of life that had motivated his murderers. He was regarded as a martyr and his tomb was a place of pilgrimage for centuries, those visiting it attesting to miracles and answered petitions.”

Blessed Hermit Philaretos of the Holy Mountain

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2015 by citydesert

Blessed Herman Philaretos book
Constantine Cavarnos “Blessed Hermit Philaretos of the Holy Mountain: Remarkable ascetic and mystic, faithful adherent of the ideals of the Kollyvades Saints Macarios of Corinth and Nicodemos the Hagiorite (ca. 1881-1961): an account of his life, character, and message” (Volume 12 Modern Orthodox Saints) [Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies; 1st edition 1997]
Elder Philaretos
A remarkable ascetic and mystic, comparable to the 14th century Byzantine mystics. This book interviews with him by Dr. Cavarnos and other Orthodox scholars.
Elder Philaretos 2
“Dr Constantine Cavarnos, head of the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies in Belmont, Massachusetts, has for a number of years been a writer of discernment on matters Orthodox, with a special emphasis on traditional expressions of Orthodoxy in Greek culture. His books are numerous (see those listed on the IBMGS site), and all the ones I’ve read have always been as informative as they are edifying. It’s a rare talent to accomplish the two regularly, but Dr Cavarnos succeeds entirely.
His series on Modern Orthodox Saints is a case in point. The series is up to 15 volumes now. The first of these that I ever picked up was volume six, on Saint Arsenios of Paros …. I’ve appreciated the quality of both the writing and the books ever since. On the quality of the books, it is perhaps sufficient to note that the paper is a thick, smooth, and creamy, obviously acid-free, with sewn bindings in both hardcover and softcover. The softcovers have particularly sturdy cardstock for covers, thicker than is usual. The quality of the book production is suitable to its subject, honoring these saints with a quality setting for these modern lives. On the writing, it is a pleasure to say that Dr Cavarnos is a believer as well as an academic. The books are well-organized and full of information, but they are not merely academic treatises on the sources and lives of the saints. They are modern hagiographies. As these saints are all relatively recently reposed, some indeed very recently, there are numerous sources available to give satisfactory detail to their lives, including photographs of the saints and their surroundings, where available. Several of the saints were even interviewed by Dr Cavarnos during the struggles of their waking lives among us, and so we benefit from his sharing this primary source material.”
For the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, see:
For the Institute’s Series “Modern Orthodox Saint”, see:
1: St. Cosmas Aitolos
2: St. Macarios of Corinth
3: St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite
4: St. Nikephoros of Chios
5: St. Seraphim of Sarov
6: St. Arsenios of Paros
7: St. Nectarios of Aegina
8: St. Savvas the New
9: St. Methodia of Kimolos
10: Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos
11: Blessed Elder Philotheos Zervakos
12: Blessed Hermit Philaretos of the Holy Mountain
13: Blessed Elder Gabriel Dionysiatis
14: Blessed Elder Iakovos of Epiros, Elder Joseph the
Hesychast, and Mother Stavritsa the Missionary
15: Saint Athanasios Parios

See also:
Dimitri E. Conomos, Graham Speake (Ed) “Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain” [Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2005]
Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge
Most of the papers included in this volume were first presented at a conference convened by the Friends of Mount Athos at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, in 2003. Mount Athos is the principal surviving centre of Orthodox monasticism and the spiritual heart of the Orthodox world. The aims of the conference were to draw attention to the historic importance, the spirituality, and the religious legacy of the Holy Mountain and to shed light on the contribution made by Athonite monasticism not only to worldwide Orthodoxy but also to Christianity at large. Many of the papers focus on particular individuals who from the fourteenth century to the twentieth have exemplified the spiritual traditions of Athos and whose memory as spiritual fathers, confessors, and ascetics continues to inspire their successors today.

Christian Hermit in an Islamic World

Posted in Uncategorized on February 21, 2015 by citydesert

Ali Merad “Christian Hermit in an Islamic World: A Muslim’s View of Charles de Foucauld” [Paulist Press, 2000]
Christian Hermit Islamic
“In “Christian Hermit in a Muslim World”, distinguished Muslim scholar Ali Merad has fashioned a moving personal tribute to Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), one of the most unusual Christian witnesses of this century. Born to a French aristocratic family, Foucauld entered the French army in Algiers and lived a dissolute life, until he was touched by God’s grace through the example of the believing Arabs in his midst Impressed by their religious spirit, he become a Trappist, then was ordained a priest. He spent the rest of his life in the desert in solitude, self-denial and hardship, displaying love and concern for his Arab neighbors. “Charles de Foucauld’s image has become a source of radiance in the solitude and silence,” writes Merad. “It reminds us of the ‘monk’s lamp’ dear to the ancient Arab poets, with its glimmer that made the heart of the solitary traveler beat with gladness, at the thought that through the unfathomable desert night, this fragile light was like the joyful sign of a fraternal presence.” His inspiring example will guide the way to a more honest and open dialogue between Christians and Muslims.”
“In this inspiring paperback translated from the French with a foreword and afterword by Zoe Hersov, Ali Merad, a professor of Arabic literature and civilization a the University of Lyon, pays tribute to Charles de Foucauld (1858 — 1916), “the Christian hermit of the Saraha.” This zealous monk’s life of solitude and service led to the founding of the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1933.
Ali Merad, a Muslim, is impressed with Foucauld’s relationship with the Tuareg, the most warlike of all the desert tribes. These poor but proud nomads taught this outsider their language, history, and folklore. Although a believer in colonialism, Foucauld tried to mediate between these Bedouin people and the French army. Merad believes this Christian espoused the authenticity of the Gospel message by his deeds of humility, charity, and gentleness. These attributes are also at the heart and soul of the Islamic faith.
Merad concludes: “Charles de Foucauld seems to have been called by destiny to be a mystical witness to Jesus before Islam.” The translator, Zoe Hersov, goes further; he claims that this French priest has shown us how to be graceful guests in the house of Islam.”
de foucault
For Charles de Foucauld, see:

She Wants To Be Alone.

Posted in Uncategorized on February 21, 2015 by citydesert

“She wants to be alone.
When even a simple stroll down the sidewalk is an exercise in self-loathing, why don’t more women run away to the woods?”
“One night, I searched “woman alone in the woods” online, just for kicks. The results were discouraging: a stock photo on the first page was named, tellingly: “Sad Lonely Woman Walking Alone Into the Woods”.
A few other hits explained that women, if we’re sane, simply couldn’t go hiking alone; it wasn’t safe. We’re weak, and besides, there are bears – you don’t want to be mauled and eaten, do you?
I didn’t. But the results still bothered me. I was reminded of the medieval anchoress, of Virgil’s wandering sibyl; she who, “with raging mouth”, wrote Heraclitus, “utter[s] things solemn, rude, and unadorned”. I recognised in myself, too, a certain stirring that occurred whenever I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s axiom: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” But Thoreau was a part of the problem: “Walden” (1854), his journal of two years of solitude among nature, can’t even conceive of a woman alone.
Walden_Thoreau 2
Again and again, the most famous, the most celebrated, hermits and recluses are men: Thoreau, of course, but also Christopher McCandless who lived (and died) alone in Alaska, as portrayed in the film “Into the Wild” (2007); J D Salinger, a recluse after the success of “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) until his death in 2010; the polar explorer Richard Byrd, author of the memoir “Alone” (1938); the American poet Thomas Merton who became a Trappist monk.
Going back further: the ascetic Saint Jerome; Laozi, founder of Taoism; but also Muhammad, Jesus, Gautama Buddha. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Books on recluses are always quoting Rousseau: “Man is born pure, it is society that corrupts.”
And Rousseau’s plan for women? From “Émile, or On Education” (1762):
“The women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, care for them as adults… these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”
“Sad Lonely Woman Walking Alone Into the Woods”: if the hermit is always a man, if there’s nobility in his solitude, then what’s left for women? Old maid. Hag. There must be something wrong with her. Don’t pretend that these aren’t still true; today, we don’t burn witches, we just shame them.
But for those of us who want to be alone, who still crave it even after all the abuse and skepticism, there are few guides and even fewer celebrations of female solitude. Who is the female hermit? Does she exist? Who is the woman who can look out at the world and in all seriousness say: “I want to be alone”?
To be alone, after all, is to admit to that rare quality: a contentment with one’s self.
The word “hermit” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word for “of the desert”, and the hermit’s history is almost as garbled as its linguistic origins. While ascetics crop up rather frequently in antiquity – the Greeks, through Alexander, were aware of the forest hermits of what is now Pakistan, and had their own Cynics, besides – ‘hermit’ as a term is used most often to denote the desert dwellers of the early Christian church and the religious orders that followed. Paul of Thebes, the first of these so-called ‘Desert Fathers’, fled to the Egyptian desert in the mid third century C.E. His only companion, supposedly, was a raven that visited him daily, clutching half a loaf of bread in its claws.
What would compel a person to do this, to run into the desert and wander, unabashed, until either her soul was scrubbed clean or she died? To love, sometimes, is to peel back the skin, and watch the bone bleach white beneath the sun.
Mary of Egypt Nilde
[Emil Nolde, “St. Mary of Egypt Among Sinners”, 1912]
“I was like a fire of public debauch,” Mary of Egypt told Zosimas of Palestine, the priest who found her wandering the desert 47 years after she first escaped. After Paul of Thebes, Saint Anthony popularised the hermit practice; scholars speculate that hermitdom, with its code of self-denial, spread as a replacement for martyrdom, no longer an option in the newly Christian Roman Empire. Christianity is built on sacrifice, and in this Mary of Egypt, the first female hermit, excelled.
Like Mary Magdalene before her, Mary entered her religious awakening a dissolute woman and emerged from it a saint. “And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba?” she asked Zosimas. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart… As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears.”
At 17, the story goes, Mary began giving her body to passing pilgrims, not out of economic necessity but as a method of self-immolation. This is familiar territory; one of the many, now cliché, ways in which women are supposed to act out our pain: we hurt ourselves, while men hurt others. One-night stands, self-harm, our tenuous relationship with food: the question it most often comes down to is: how can we best escape our bodies?
Mary Nolde
[Emil Nolde “St. Mary of Egypt Among the Sinners”, c.1910]
At 29, Mary attempted to enter a church, and found that she couldn’t cross its threshold. Something, be it God or some other mystery, barred her; she understood, in this moment, that she needed to get out. She needed to run. She needed to be free.
She went to the desert with only three loaves of bread, and this is where, 47 years later, Zosimas found her, transformed. Now she was an old woman of 76. In the desert, Mary told Zosimas, she battled wild animals and tore at wild herbs for food and baked beneath the endless sun. She would not admit to inner peace. “Why do you wish, Abba Zosimas,” she asked him, “to see a sinful woman? What do you wish to hear or learn from me, you who have not shrunk from such struggles?”
I bring up Mary not because I am trying to convert anyone, but because in her public struggle, I see an aspect of myself. Hers were the problems and self-hatreds that we women are still taught to torture ourselves with today: sex as a bartering chip, sex as a method of validation, of proving one’s credentials – credentials that, more often than not, men get to define. “Men look at women,” the art historian John Berger wrote in his survey of European art, “Ways of Seeing” (1972). “Women watch themselves being looked at. …The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female.” What did Mary see when she looked at her own reflection? Herself? Or someone else’s vision?
We’re lying to ourselves if we think that this is what freedom looks like.
To be alone, though, is not the same thing as loneliness. Is there anything lonelier, after all, than lying next to a person who doesn’t love you, and knowing that they never will? Sometimes, it’s healthy to tell the outside world to go to hell. Sometimes, for the sake of one’s integrity, one’s sanity, you need to say no. I will not, I am not, I won’t – but what won’t you do? Where is the line? To be alone, you need to know who exactly you are.
There is a reason why humans prefer groups of two or more: it’s easier. It’s easier to delegate tasks, to point to one person and say: “You will find our food”; to tell another: “You will lead us along the way”. In fairy tales, kings and hermits are always finding each other. An Italian fairy tale features a holy hermit (male, of course) who, after helping a youth win both a princess and a kingdom’s worth of gold, demands half of everything, princess included. When the youth draws his sword, moving to cut the princess apart, the hermit relents, happy to see that the young man “held his honour dearer than his wife”.
The princess is the prize. But Mary of Egypt was no princess. Alone, only one person makes the decisions. Food, shelter, water – they’re all one person’s responsibility. This is what true freedom looks like: if you fuck up, you’re dead. If you don’t, you survive. If you survive, congratulations: no one owns you.
To create anything, we need to have the freedom to lead, unimpeded, into the murkiness of our own minds.
Mary Zozimas 2
Mary survived. A medieval icon depicts the moment Zosimas found her: clothed, he offers her a robe, a cloak, anything to protect her from the cruelty of the elements, the cruelty of our eager eyes. Her arm is outstretched. She’ll take the robe, sure – but not quite yet. This is a pictorial representation of our bated breaths. In this moment, the halfway point between yes and no, Mary’s back is bent forward; like an animal, there’s power in the spine. Also like an animal: the gold fur that covers her body, the same gold as the halo that crowns her head. One corner of her mouth turns upward, approaching something that can’t exactly be called a smile. From something wild comes beauty; from solitude, contentment.
Mary did it. You could do it. Why haven’t you?
Because not all women can be alone.
Often, our supposed weaknesses are used against us. “It’s too dangerous”, we’re told if we want to travel. “You’re not strong enough”, we’re told if we express any desire to hike, to build, to boat, to dream. We’ll die if we go outside. Even the men who say that they like “smart” women, “independent” women, mean something different from how women define the words: when those men say “smart”, they mean: “I have strong opinions and she agrees with them”. “Independent” as in: “she’ll choose to follow where I lead”.
But to work, we need to be alone. To create anything, we need to have the freedom to lead, unimpeded, into the murkiness of our own minds. ‘To be female and to demand such things as a retreat from life and from loved ones,’ writes the poet Leslie A. Miller in her essay “Alone in the Temple” (1992), “is difficult and different. To assert the need for retreat when one is young, a wife… seems selfish, stubborn, even crazy.”
To voice this need is difficult. A thousand years after Mary of Egypt and half a world away, a woman named Ji Xian wanted to be a nun. This was the late Ming dynasty, and there was a precedent: early Buddhist nuns, writes Susan Murcott in “First Buddhist Women” (1991), were “a radical experiment”, consisting, in their earliest phase, of ‘“female wanderers” who could live in the forest alone’.
First Buddhist Women
The scholar Grace S Fong, writing in the journal “Early Modern Women” in 2007, elaborates: for a woman such as Ji Xian, a daughter of the elite, there were, “except for Buddhist or Daoist nuns”, a “distinct lack of models and contexts for female reclusion”. Noblemen had options: recluse-poets, who gave up their court lives in favour of a life spent composing stanzas, were a viable tradition. Ji Xian was a poet, too, but her work portrays poignantly the full extent in which her art was limited by her sex. “I desire to imitate the recluse at Deer Gate,” she writes. “But being a wife, what can I do?”
What could she do? What can any of us do? It’s difficult to navigate the boundaries of one’s own life. ‘You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, “You’re crazy,”’ the Swiss hiker Sarah Marquis told the “New York Times” in 2014, after walking 10,000 miles across the world by herself. “It’s never: “Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.”’
Sarah Marquis
The potential for catastrophe is implicit: what if we’re lost? The means of production. Even for those women who, unlike Ji Xian, were able to become recluses, their womanhood becomes a disadvantage. Orgyen Chökyi, a 17th century Tibetan Buddhist nun known in the West as the “Himalayan Hermitess”, wrote: “May I not be born again in a female body. …I could do without the misery of this female life. / How I lament this broken chest, this female body.” Femininity, as it turns out, can be a barrier to enlightenment.
Himalayan Hermitess
A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction – but what could Ji Xian have produced if she could have just been given the opportunity to be alone? How many women are there, before and after Ji Xian, named and nameless, elite or otherwise, who couldn’t be alone? “My deep appreciation is for high mountains,” goes another of Ji Xian’s poems. “Lofty feelings – in vain there are dreams. / I always lodge them amongst the white clouds.”
Don’t you dare forget her name.
But why would anyone want to be alone? Try it for a moment. Lock yourself in another room, one entirely without the presence of other people, other voices. Disconnect your internet, turn off your phone. Allow yourself, for just a few minutes, to let the poses fall away. The angles. Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.
Breathe. There is your throat. There is the fly, buzzing in the ceiling corner. There is, also, something else: the silence. A silent room has its own timbre, its own weight. Breathe again; keep breathing. Allow life, with its heaviness, its dust, to slip away, unimpeded.
This is the feeling, sadly rare, of no longer being watched. The psychotherapist Carl Jung, after seeing a photo of the Arctic explorer Augustine Courtauld, remarked that Courtauld’s was the face of a man “stripped of his persona, his public self stolen, leaving his true self naked before the world”. For women, this is doubly true: a woman’s life is one lived under surveillance, a system of inner and outer regulations even more restrictive than a man’s. Even a simple stroll down the sidewalk becomes an exercise in self-loathing. Suck in your stomach. Straighten your hem. (What if it rides up, exposing you?) Every shop window offers a glimpse of your own reflection. Adjust, adjust, adjust.
It’s enough to drive a woman crazy (and isn’t this what we’re always being accused of?). It’s enough to drive any woman to the woods. It was this, a life lived under the eyes of men, their needs and their demands, that led Sarah Bishop, the hermit of Connecticut’s West Mountain, to the cave she called home.
Sarah Bishop's Cave
The writer Samuel Goodrich wrote a poem about her in 1823; in 1856, he recalled her story:
“Male hermits have been frequently heard of, but a woman hermit is a rare occurrence. Nevertheless, Ridgefield could boast one of these among its curiosities. Sarah Bishop was, at the period of my boyhood, a thin, ghostly old woman, bent and wrinkled, but still possessing a good deal of activity. She lived in a cave, formed by nature, in a mass of projecting rocks that overhung a deep valley or gorge in West Mountain.
Bishop’s hermitdom, he goes on to observe, could be traced back to the Revolutionary War, when she was a young woman. During the war, the story goes, her father’s house was burnt down by the passing British troops and she, as has happened to women since time immemorial, was raped by a soldier.”
Sarah Bishop
All we know of Bishop comes from Goodrich, the last in a long line of men who defined the course of her life for her. For his muse, Goodrich allots a few pretty stanzas, some paragraphs in the memoir devoted to his own long life; he calls her the “nun of the mountain”, a nice term for a woman whose body was violated in the name of her country’s freedom. If Bishop kept a diary, perhaps it would have gone like this: “Don’t tread on me”.
“I felt that the creation of a rustic cabin would be the solution to my homelessness.”
And perhaps Thoreau was thinking of Bishop, and the precedent she set, when he built his cabin in the woods of Walden Pond. Probably not. “Walden” is a work central to national self-mythologising; Americans’ image of ourselves as a nation of individuals. There are precious few equivalents for America’s women, and little evidence in our ability to survive alone. But Anne LaBastille’s “Woodswoman” series of memoirs, which recount the cabin that the late American author and ecologist built on the shores of a remote Adirondack lake in the 1960s, could be one of them.
“Woodswoman” (1976), published during the height of the feminist Second Wave, begins with a divorce. LaBastille, who married young and, worse yet, married her employer, is given a month to find a new home for herself; “I had no place to go,” she writes. “My own family was either dead or scattered, leaving me with no relatives to turn to. …Intuitively now, I made my decision. I would build a log cabin in the Adirondack wilderness. I hoped that a withdrawal to the peace of nature might remedy my despair.” Most importantly: “I felt that the creation of a rustic cabin would be the solution to my homelessness.”
LaBastille’s writing lacks the lyricism of Thoreau, but it has its own considerable charms. Her books – “Woodswoman”, “Woodswoman II” (1987), “Woodswoman III” (1997), and “Woodswoman IIII” (2004) – are practical guides in homesteading, giving the impression that, if she could do it, so could anyone. LaBastille grew up outside New York City; though a keen interest in the outdoors was a major part of her childhood, the occasional camping trip does not make a wilderness expert. She made mistakes and, during one winter described in the first volume, almost died. But she survived.
In her second volume, LaBastille builds another cabin, explicitly taking her inspiration from Walden for what she calls “Thoreau II”. Like Thoreau the first, she provides a list of expenses: the total spent on building the cabin and obtaining the necessary permits is $578.05 in today’s money. Thoreau, on the other hand, spent $742.64. For less than $1,000 today, and for less than one of history’s most revered recluses, LaBastille builds herself a private oasis, an escape route, a home.
LaBastille is not the only woman to do so. There are more: the English modern-day hermit Rachel Denton, profiled in “The Guardian” in 2009. The 13th century Mugai Nyodai, the first female Zen master in the world. Martha Frock, who lived in the 1940s in a shack in the middle of the Florida Everglades. Anastasia the Patrician, a sixth century lady-in-waiting to a Byzantine empress who founded a monastery in Egypt.
Margaret Kirkby, a second-generation hermit in 14th century England. Suchitra Sen, the Greta Garbo of Indian cinema. Despina Achladioti, the Greek patriot known as the Lady of Ro, after the deserted island where she took refuge during the Second World War. The Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. Robyn Davidson who trekked across the deserts of west Australia by camels. Even the poet Dorothy Wordsworth, to an extent.
All women who wanted to be alone.
“Single: The Art of Being Satisfied, Fulfilled, and Independent” (2004). “Choosing Me Before We” (2009). “Living Alone and Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life” (2002).
Living alone
“Falling for Me: How I Hung Curtains, Learned to Cook, Traveled to Seville, and Fell in Love” (2011). “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” (2006). Today, single women can support a cottage industry of self-help books. But the single woman, unlike the hermit, isn’t really alone – she’s simply, momentarily or forever, without a man.
So why aren’t there more women really alone, women hermits? A hermit, of course, is not just single, not just alone, but alone in a particular way: free from the dizzying pressures and possibilities of public life. The hermit is truly free from acting as lord or master, proprietor or minister, soldier or citizen, serf or king. The hermit is free even from the simple expectations of being a neighbour.
For women, for most of history, it’s been mother or maiden, daughter or wife. The roles shuffle, their names and details changing, but all share one feature: which man does she care for, which man does she take care of? Woman as defined by man; woman as seen by man. How unappealing. With so few choices, it’s clear why we know of so few women hermits, and why solitude is viewed as male.
This was the hierarchy that Mary of Egypt scorched herself of in the desert; the hierarchy that Ji Xian wandered away from in the corners of her mind; the hierarchy that Anne LaBastille wrote a guide against. By some miracle, these women were, in one way or another, hermits. But their escape was rare.
A woman alone, unwatched, unchaperoned and without children is impossible for us to process. What does she do with her time? Burn the witch. She doesn’t exist. But what of those women who, against all odds, refuse these rules? We don’t remember them. So here, instead, a commemoration to those few who did: “I want to be alone.” That famous phrase. Think of it as another option, one so recognisable that, in a single breath, it created an enigma. Garbo made it seem so easy. Years later, she would claim: “I only said, “I want to be let alone.” There is all the difference.” But too late. The words were spoken. The myth was made.
We imagine her clearly: glamorous, intelligent, those eyebrows, that face. “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” An actress is defined by her audience; after a decade in Hollywood, she must have been tired of watching herself being watched. Instead, a refusal: no one got to look at her, and she disappeared, transformed into a modern fairy tale. A woman alone is either a mystery or an object of pity; you tell me which was Garbo.”

From: Rhian Sasseen “She wants to be alone. When even a simple stroll down the sidewalk is an exercise in self-loathing, why don’t more women run away to the woods?”
“Aeon” 18 February 2015
Rhian Sasseen
Rhian Sasseen is a writer whose work has been published in Al Jazeera America, Salon and “Modern Farmer”, among others. She lives in Massachusetts

International Conference: Cultures of Solitude

Posted in Uncategorized on February 21, 2015 by citydesert

International and Interdisciplinary Conference : Cultures of Solitude
July 30-31, 2015
University of Würzburg, Germany
“The withdrawal from society is an international and transhistorical, yet also culturally specific phenomenon. This international and interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore American cultures of solitude and their representations in cultural products from the colonial era to the present time. Representations of hermits and recluses – whether fictional or historical, deliberately seeking or forced into isolation, temporarily or finally withdrawing from society –, abound in American cultural history. Media depicting hermits and recluses range widely in time, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, and in genre, from broadsides to novels, from poems to plays, from songs to musicals, from ballet to opera, from engravings to art installations, from documentaries to TV shows, and from computer games to social media.
While habitually perceived as exile or enclosure, reclusiveness and hermitism often manifest themselves as a form of liberation, independent of the topographies of isolation, the politics of solitude, and the culture of privacy involved. Indeed, the element of liberation can be traced back to the very origins of the term ‘recluse.’ In classical Latin, recludere denoted ‘to un-close’, ‘to disclose,’ or even ‘to reveal.’ Although in late Latin it came to mean ‘to shut off’ it retained its active charge: a believer opted for seclusion, thus freeing himself or herself from a restrictive environment. Independence and liberty are venerable American ideals. Freedom was the initial motivation for many early settlers to come to the New World. Later, individualism and freedom became the key to the westward movement and the underlying features of the frontier spirit. Over the course of American history, freedom was sought in numerous manifestations such as religious freedom, economic independence, political autonomy, female emancipation, abolition of slavery, and the absence of social restrictions, among many others. Approached in this way, hermitism and reclusiveness can be understood as extreme manifestations of liberation and individualism, which became a significant, if not the second most important American motif, besides the theme of the settlement, colonization and reclamation of the New World.
On the one hand, there are depictions of hermits who find freedom in living alone in the wilderness. They spend their lives isolated in nature. On the other hand, there are portraits of urban recluses who live outside society without spatially retreating from the city. They withdraw into the privacy of their room or house. Both types of solitaries are secularized versions of early religious solitaries. The original hermits were the Desert Fathers. The European anchorites of the Middle Ages, who followed their example, were their earliest urban equivalents. Thus, these two solitary ways of life have a common origin and they also seem to have a common motivation, the quest or urge for freedom. At the same time, hermitism and reclusiveness also entail confinement and limitation. The liberating effects are often the result of an initial situation of withdrawal without alternative. And even if the retreat is willfully sought, it goes hand in hand with deprivations of all kinds. This may be more obvious with regard to urban recluses, as in their case the confinement, the limitation of space, is most obvious, but it also applies to hermits in nature. Asceticism and frugality are, for example, physical limitations that often flank hermitism in nature. Yet, solitary ways of life seem to be more liberating than limiting in numerous ways.
In the larger social context, hermits and recluses in the New World on the one hand parade typically American values such as independence and self-reliance, liberty and privacy. On the other hand, their withdrawal runs counter to equally prominent and venerable American merits such as community, sociability, and the social compact. These conflicting issues do have a long tradition in the American mindset, originating, respectively, in the colonial and the constitutional era, but never have they been more relevant than in the present time. Depending on the chosen perspective, hermits and recluses can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
The topicality of this subject matter further derives from the concepts and issues that inform and flank the withdrawal from society, such as the topographies of isolation, the politics of solitude, the cultures of privacy and home, the artistic and creative potentials of reclusiveness, the spiritual promises of exile, the mental and physical conditions of retreat, the social preconditions of withdrawal as well as the function of shifting representations of solitude. A number of recent and also more established disciplinary and interdisciplinary trends in American Studies such as “Ecocriticism”, “The Spatial Turn”, “Body Studies”, “Gender Studies”, “Studies of Illness and Age”, “Life Writing” as well as “Intermediality Studies” provide a broad theoretical foundation for the exploration of cultural representations of both, urban recluses and hermits in nature. At the same time, Hermit Studies can enrich and enhance the insights of these fields of research in many ways. This symposium on the cultural history of American hermits and recluses aims to reveal this relevance. An array of distinguished European and American scholars from a wide range of subdisciplines of American Studies such as Literary Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Political Studies, History, and Art History will explore representations of retreat and withdrawal in American Culture and thereby investigate the liberating and limiting aspects of American cultures of solitude.”
Organizer: PD Dr. Ina Bergmann
Associate Professor, American Studies, University of Würzburg, Germany
Assistant Organizer: Stefan Hippler, M. A.
Assistant Professor, American Studies, University of Würzburg, Germany

Asking the Fathers

Posted in Uncategorized on February 21, 2015 by citydesert

One book within four crates of book generously given to The Hermitage library by an old friend:
Aelred Squires “Asking the Fathers” [London, SPCK Publishing, 1977, 1993, reprint 2010]
Asking the Fathers
“Since its first publication in 1973 “Asking the Fathers” has been reissued twice as it is generally regarded as the best introduction to the Christian spiritual life. A member of the Dominican Order at the time, Aelred Squire in this classic study of the Christian spiritual masters, makes these early Fathers of the Church accessible to us today. By means of Squire’s wide-ranging perspectives, they speak to us now, even after many centuries, with an immediacy that is both startling and challenging. Not only the desert fathers but later exponents of the Christian spiritual life are examined, thus bringing the early writers up-to-date with relevant references drawn from literature and philosophy. He thus emphasises the unbroken tradition of Christian spirituality. As the author himself says: this is not a book for scholars but for those “searching for a little light on many dark matters.””

See also: Aelred Squire “Fathers Talking: An Anthology” (Cistercian Studies) [Cistercian Publications Inc, 1987]

“Aelred Squire died at New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, California, on May 1, 1997. Born in London on December 6, 1920, baptized in the Church of England, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Oxford in 1943 by Fr Conrad Pepler. He was accepted as a postulant at Prinknash Abbey, expecting to join as soon as the war was over. In the event, he joined the Dominicans in 1946, was ordained in 1952, and, apart from a brief spell at the preparatory school then run by the Order in Monmouthshire, taught at Blackfriars, Oxford, until 1965. He moved to Belgium to live as a hermit, returned to London to teach at the study centre conducted by the Dominican Sisters in Portobello Road, migrated to Norway in 1972 to serve as a mission priest at Lillehammer, finally yielded to monasticism in 1980, first with the Benedictines at Christ in the Desert, New Mexico, transferring his vows from the Dominicans in 1982, and at last, from December 1983, with the Camaldolese Benedictines at Big Sur…..with “Aelred of Rievaulx: A Study” (1969); “Asking the Fathers” (1973), a fine introduction to patristic spirituality and theology; “Summer in the Seed” (1980), a somewhat idiosyncratic reflection on the cultural situation of Catholicism after Vatican II; and “Fathers Talking” (1986), a popular anthology of patristic texts, he has left a considerable theological legacy.”