The Naked Hermit

“Nowadays in our western society it sounds strange to associate monks and hermits with nakedness. This seems primarily due to the fact that in mainstream Christianity (as in Judaism and Islam) a religious dedication seems incompatible with exposing too much of the human anatomy. The degree of “orthodoxy” of a person can be strongly displayed in the dress: the longer the skirt, the higher the collar, the simpler and straighter the cut of the costume, all these characteristics seem to be the opposite of nakedness. Yet, we only need to look at the phenomenon of the sadhus, the holy men in Hinduism, to see that nakedness can function as an expression of extreme religious dedication and asceticism. Though they might not belong to the mainstream tradition, we can find also in Christianity examples of parallel cases: monks and hermits stripping themselves of their clothes as an expression of their conviction. In particular I shall be looking at the tradition of nakedness within Egyptian Christianity.
But before discussing the subject it may be useful to define two terms that seem almost synonym, but have slightly different meanings: nakedness and nudity. “Naked” is the past participle of the archaic verb “to nake”, meaning that a person has been dressed, but was undressed. It can also have a slight implication of uneasiness for the person in question. In the case of the term “nude” the absence of clothes has a more neutral sense and there is no allusion as to the question whether the person should be dressed, or has been wearing clothes before. In everyday use the words seem to be considered synonyms, but in the case of ‘naked hermits’ we should from time to time make the difference between ‘stripped of clothes’ and ‘not wearing anything’.
Before investigating the reasons why certain hermits rejected the use of clothes we should also consider the reasons why normally speaking people do wear them. The main reasons may be summarized as follows:

1. protection of the body against cold, heat, and sunburn;
2. covering specific parts of the body (very often sexual characteristics and/or the face) which are not meant to be shown in public according to social conventions;
3. embellishment of the body;
4. showing the status or place in social hierarchy of the bearer….
Abba Pamvo
Apa Pambo states that a garment can be worn by a monk if he has left it outside of his cell for three days without anyone bothering to take it, in other words, the garment is no more than a rag. Joseph of Panepho demonstrated the unimportance of clothes by changing his normal dress to that of a beggar in front of his fellow monks and then asking them whether it had changed anything in his personality. Their answer was negative, as may be expected. In another saying an anonymous father advises a young monk that one of the monastic virtues is to prefer a dirty tunic rather than a good one. Apparently there was also a difference in attitude towards the degree of luxury one could or would allow oneself….
Others would go one step further and instead of simply neglecting or minimising their clothes, they would only wear a single garment made of palm leaf. This material not only gives an absolute minimum of protection from heat or cold, but it also feels uncomfortable against the skin.
Abba Ammonas criticised a monk who visits him dressed in this manner, saying that this extreme asceticism serves no goal. The best known hermit who wore a palm leaf dress for most of his life is, of course, St. Paul of Thebes. His biography is known from the “Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit”, written by Saint Jerome, around 375/76, according to which he lived in the eastern desert from about 250 till his death in 340/41. Although the text is highly imaginative, St. Paul has become the prototype of the desert-hermit and his tunic, woven of palm-leaf is a fixed element in his iconography…
Others would prefer complete nudity as a form of deliberate self mortification. We have a number of texts where such hermits occur. In one apophthegma, Macarius the Great tells his fellow brethren that he does not yet consider himself to be a monk, but that he has seen real monks. He was in fact referring to two naked hermits that he had met living on an island in a lake in the wilderness. These two, an Egyptian and a Libyan, had been living there for forty years. When asked by Macarius whether the sun and the cold did not bother them, they answered that they didn’t through the providence of God….
Although nudity is an exception rather than a rule among Christian ascetics, it can be taken as the expression of the wish or the striving for a return to childlike innocence. The Coptic monastic hood, which is derived from children’s tunics, is also seen as a symbol of this innocence.
Nudity as an expression of innocence and virtue is also closely connected to two other important topics in early Christianity, namely its close connection with the symbolism of the monastic ideal: baptism and martyrdom. Becoming a monk means renouncing the world and taking on another identity and a new name; the same applies to a convert who symbolically leaves his pagan life behind while receiving a new name and a new life at his baptism.
Monasticism is also an expression of resistance to evil and was seen as the main path to sanctity after the persecutions of the early Christians had ceased. Asceticism became a way of imposing martyrdom upon oneself and as such ascetics can be seen as the successors of the martyrs….
In conclusion, we could say that nudity can be considered an ultimate expression of monastic asceticism and self-imposed physical deprivation. Most of the reasons for which people would wear clothes, protection, comfort, adornment and expression of status, seem not of relevance for monks and hermits. The only reason that remains would be social convention, but if a hermit lives in perfect isolation, even this reason loses its value. Nevertheless we see a number of cases where the ascetic goes naked or almost naked in the company of others. Here an additional element is present: self-humiliation as a part of asceticism. The holy fools tried to avoid any impression of sanctity, on the contrary, tried to load scorn on themselves, meanwhile trying to prove their dissociation of the material world and their humbleness to the few who would see through their unconventional behaviour. What must have been highly unconventional at the moment itself, became acceptable and even a personal hallmark of holiness.
Apart from nudity as a sign of detachment from the material world, there is also the reference to nudity as a symbol of childlike innocence, the return to a state before any personal sins had been committed. Here there is a clear connection to the ritual of baptism, where the new convert would undress and not only be ritually be cleaned of sins, but would also be anointed. This is a reference to the nudity of the athlete who wrestles nude, like the true Christian fights evil. The third comparison that occurs is that between the wrestler and the martyr. Monasticism developed in a period when, after persecutions had ceased, self-imposed martyrdom became an important way to sanctity. Thus the monk became the successor of the martyr and as such an image of the athlete fighting the powers of evil. The nudity of the monk, hermit or holy fool has therefore explicit or implicit references to the nudity of the athlete, the martyr and the newly baptised.
Unconventional or even controversial as nudity may have been in the lifetime of certain saints, it became an accepted feature in retrospect, part of their image in hagiography and iconography. This could even have its influence on the image other saints who were not associated with nudity initially. Examples of this are the legend and iconography of Melchisedech in the Coptic Church and the iconography of Macarius the Great in post-Byzantine art.”
From Karel C Innemée ‘On the necessity of dress: Should a hermit wear clothes?’ in “Khil’a, Journal of Dress and Textiles in the Islamic World” 1 (2006) pp. 69-78
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