What price peace and quiet?
“What price peace and quiet, Sister Ruth? It is hard to imagine a better prospective tenant than Sister Ruth Furneaux. As a Carmelite nun, pledged to a life of solitude, she doesn’t smoke, drink, watch television or listen to loud music. She has no troublesome relatives or noisy pets. And the Archbishop of Canterbury himself will vouch for her good character.
Yet Sister Ruth, one of a shrinking number of monks and nuns who have vowed to live as hermits – there are just 600 or so scattered across Europe – has spent the past six years trying in vain to find a suitable place to pursue her calling.
Currently residing at a “sympathetic but crowded” retreat centre near Llandeilo, she lived until recently on a conifer plantation in North Wales, where for two years she dwelt in a log cabin and subsisted on homegrown vegetables. She had no electricity or running water, and no flushing loo. She had only mice and a noxious gas heater for company in winter. But a battle with cancer and advancing middle age have convinced her that she needs a more permanent, more hospitable home.
“I’m searching for somewhere as remote as possible that is not within sight or sound of any other buildings,” she says. “But truly remote places are very rare now. They’re difficult to get hold of unless you have money with which to buy or rent your solitude and, while I may be able to get help from kind sponsors, I have no income.”
A further complication is that in order to devote herself to solitary meditation and prayer, Sister Ruth needs someone else living nearby to act as a gatekeeper to filter out worldly distractions. “It sounds silly – but in order to be entirely alone, you need to know that news of a gravely ill relative will reach you, but not to have to answer the doorbell every time it rings.
“I did apply for permission to build a couple of huts on an isolated former rubbish tip in Monmouthshire, but hermits don’t fare well with planning authorities, who don’t want anything built on open spaces.”
Planners have also thwarted her attempts to buy derelict cottages in deserted rural corners. “I suspect the authorities would rather these places went to ruin than let them be renovated and run the risk of the new occupants littering the countryside with white-plastic patio furniture,” she says with a grin. “It’s a shame, because I just need somewhere quiet that some volunteers could help me make habitable. I gave up on ever having central heating years ago.”
Despite Sister Ruth’s self-effacing way of describing it – “not some great, penitential thing, but an exercise in ‘listening to the still, small voice in the everyday’ – the rigours of the hermit’s life already sound gruelling enough without having to endure an uncomfortable environment as well.
Daunting enough is the seven hours of prayer she performs each day, starting at 5.30am. “Christians say you can meditate lying down,” she says, “but in my experience you need to be upright or you fall asleep.” Even more disconcerting, however, is the philosophy behind living a solitary life. “It is all about stopping the craving for interaction with other people – the addiction to all the things we think we need in order to reassure ourselves that we are loved and valued as beings,” she explains. “Identity literally translates as ‘to make a thing of yourself’. So much of our contact with others is hollow and about creating feedback about ourselves.”
Sister Ruth acknowledges the challenges of the life she has chosen. She has not spoken to most of her close relatives for years and admits that some friends felt “bereaved” when she became a hermit six years ago, gradually withdrawing over the course of eight years before that. “Old habits die hard. My sister is moving to Barbados, and I did ask myself why I couldn’t go, too. When I first took my vows, I saw two people holding hands and realised that would never happen to me again in that way. There is a price to pay. But my life is contented and true and fulfilling.”
Surprisingly, the churches, whether Anglican or non-conformist, have been scarcely more sympathetic to Sister Ruth’s needs than the secular market. “The Church is keen on encouraging the eremitic life, but there isn’t any machinery to support it,” she says. “It operates like a corporation that puts disused chapels on the market for vast amounts of money every few weeks. It claims it has to sell its assets for as much as possible, but this is a nonsense when it could put them to alternative religious use. Even chapels with religious covenants end up being turned into wine bars or knocked down to make way for modern houses.”
Sr. Ruth Furneaux is the first hermit in residence and spiritual director of the Archbishop Rowan Williams Hermitage Trust: http://www.arwht.org.uk/eng/about.shtml and http://www.rhandir-mwyn.org/#/hermitage-in-rhandirmwyn/4539051744