Archive for November, 2016

A Medieval Egyptian Hermitage

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

Polish archaeologists in Egypt have discovered a medieval hermitage, and in the full set of artefacts that illustrate the daily life of Egyptian monk more than 1,300 years ago – a pair of sandals, fragments of pottery, textiles, wine amphorae, and even… a letter.

“The objects we discovered during excavations allow to reconstruct the hermit’s daily life” – told PAP Prof. Włodzimierz Godlewski from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw.


The finds include a pair of leather sandals with multi-layered soles, a full set of ceramic vessels, necessary for everyday life, including large storage vessels and amphorae for wine. There are also pieces of fabric, perhaps the hermit’s clothes, leather goods, braids and broken glassware.

Hermitage was discovered within the monastery Naqlun in the oasis of Fayum, where Poles under the auspices of the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw have been conducting research since 1986. The monastery was built in the mid-fifth century, as a large complex of hermitages forged in dells and on hillsides. In the seventh century it was inhabited by 120 hermits. At the end of the twentieth century only two monks were left, but now the place is booming again.

During the last season, archaeologists studied the hermitage consisting of three chambers carved into the rocky hillside. The hermitage was inhabited in the sixth and early seventh century by a single monk. After his death, it was abandoned. Hermitage consisted of two parts – residential are comprising two rooms (day room and bedroom) and a small kitchen.

According to the researchers, “day room” was carefully plastered and renovated several times. In its walls several niches were carved, in which the monk placed everyday utensils. In the corner of the kitchen there was a deep pit, where the owner of the hermitage stored grain. “The pit was ventilated with an outlet extending out of the room, which was a unique installation in the previously studied hermitages in Naqlun” – says Prof. Godlewski.

“The most interesting discovery is a papyrus letter to the monk Neilos, which is preserved in its entirety, but with damages that make reading it difficult” – said the archaeologist. Papyrologist, who decrypts the letter – Prof. Tomasz Derda – said that the letter is written elegantly, with a skilled hand. It is an invitation for the hermit from a high-ranking person in the church hierarchy, possibly a bishop, presumably from the city of Arsinoe which is in the same region as the Naqlun monastery.,409794,polish-archaeologists-discover-a-medieval-hermitage-in-egypt.html

Solitude and Communion

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

A.M Allchin, Dom André Louf OCSO, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Fr Roland Walls, Sr Benedicta Ward SLG, and Mother Mary Clare SLG  Solitude and Communion: Papers on the Hermit Life (Fairacres Publications)  SLG Press, 2015


“These essays were first published to mark the revival of the hermit life in the Church. Prepared for a meeting of solitaries at St David’s in Wales in 1975, both their historical and contemporary content continue to speak to and encourage those called to the eremitic life. For anyone who doubts its validity, they give a compelling and lucid explanation of this way of following Christ. The love of God shines through them; all readers may sense something of the attractive power of that love, whether or not they aspire to such a life. The contributors include Canon A. M. Allchin, Dom André Louf OCSO, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Roland Walls, Sister Benedicta Ward SLG and Mother Mary Clare SLG.”

Raven’s Bread Ministries

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

It has been a long time since I last drew attention to Raven’s Bread Ministries, a valuable on-line resource for those pursuing the life of the Hermit in the modern world:

Raven’s Bread Ministries offers a service to hermits and lovers of solitude around the world, no matter what their spiritual affiliation. We offer information and guidance to those who have embraced eremitical life full-time; to those who are discerning this particular call from the Divine, and to those who cherish whatever solitude they can find in their daily lives…

The simplest definition of a hermit or spiritual solitary is someone who lives alone by choice for spiritual reasons. This broad description excludes those individuals who live alone through unwanted circumstances as well as misogynists who dislike society in general. We are speaking of deeply spiritual individuals who are seeking a lifestyle where they can achieve personal transparency to the Divine. They are not selfish individualists merely seeking their own comfort, but rather passionate lovers of humanity who, through their lives of prayer, foster a compassionate care for all their brothers and sisters. They become the “still point”, the strong center, which holds together a world threatening to fly apart.

The reasons for choosing a life of solitude are as diverse as those who seek it. A resurgence in eremitical life in the western world which began in the 1950’s shows no sign of abating. More and more people are embracing solitude as a way of life in order to seek not only personal balance but a means to care spiritually for the world around them. The spiritual motivation they respond to is often distinct from “religious” incentives. No particular denomination or religion has a special claim on producing authentic hermits. Solitaries are found among all cultures and beliefs.

However, some religious denominations offer more support to hermits than others. The Roman Catholic church has recognized hermit life as a valid form of religious living when it promulgated a new Code of Canon Law in 1983. Canon #603 defines hermit life as one “by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.”

Christian hermits first appeared in the Fourth Century CE with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, men and women who sought a form of “white martyrdom” in the desert after Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Empire and “red martyrdom” disappeared. Over the centuries the popularity of the eremitical calling has waxed and waned. Revivals are often the by-product of a major cultural shift, such as we are now experiencing.

Raven’s Bread Ministries publishes a very informative newsletter:

Raven’s Bread, Food for Those in Solitude This quarterly newsletter now connects over 1100 readers around the world through either the paper edition or the pdf file format sent via email. We, Paul and Karen Fredette, compile the written contributions of our hermit readers into an eight page publication. Thus Raven’s Bread has an authenticity only derived from lived experience. Reflections, questions, personal stories and problems are published and commented on. Occasionally readers are asked to respond to surveys which trace the growing hermit movement. Donations for the newsletter are appreciated but not required. All names on our mailing list are kept strictly confidential.


Raven’s Bread Ministries also offers for sale (at extremely reasonable prices) a range of resources on the eremitical life – especially “hard-to-find documents and data about eremitical life such as juridical commentaries; bibliographies; sample rules and articles on various aspects hermit life” – see the listing at:

Paul and Karen Karper, who administer the site, are also the authors of Consider the Ravens, On Contemporary Hermit Life:

This distinctive book emerged from years of ongoing dialogue among committed hermits through Raven’s Bread, an eremitic newsletter with 1100 readers around the world. It is a one-of-a-kind volume on a rare but fascinating topic which intrigues the curious, provides a handbook and guide for aspiring hermits, and reveals the surprising diversity of this hidden movement. Awarded a bronze medal in the Religion Category for the 2012 Independently Published Book Awards (IPPY), this book distils the essence of the wisdom and experience found in the lives of those who embrace solitude, silence and simplicity.

Consider the Ravens, On Contemporary Hermit Life is an especially valuable work for those considering the life of the Hermit, no less than for those who are already living that life. It is notable for its attention to basic (not a word used here in any patronizing sense) practicalities of the life of the Hermit. It is, alas, all too common for people to be drawn to some romantic notion of the eremitical life without paying any attention to the reality……finances, accommodation, health care, food, insurance… if wandering off into a cave somewhere and trying to live in silence and solitude is sufficient. This work will (one hopes) actively deter such romantic dreams. It is written in a plain-speaking, down-to-earth language – which some may find insufficiently “spiritual” but which I find refreshingly blunt. Considering the rather abrupt, if not at times brutal, language of the Desert Fathers and Mothers when giving advice to those who sought their counsel, this book fits well into that tradition.


As the Amazon site – through which you can order the book: – notes:

If you have ever wondered about how hermits live, or if you are an active participant in the eremitical life, then it’s time to make this ultimate resource guide part of your book collection.

Written by the editors of Raven’s Bread, an international quarterly newsletter that provides guidance on hermit life, Consider the Ravens is a seminal study on eremitism as it has developed since the 1950s.

Learn about

All aspects of the vocation, including spiritual, practical, and juridical
Hazards of the hidden life
Practical recommendations for beginners in eremitical life
Extensive citations from desert fathers and mothers
Exploration of eremitical spirituality.

Essentially, you’ll learn about the eremitic life straight from the hermits themselves, and it’s never an easy task to get their opinions and advice! The voices of many of today’s hermits can now be heard loud and clear for the first time.

Find the answers to your questions about a vocation as old as spirituality itself and discover why eremitism is becoming more popular than ever in Consider the Ravens.

Raven’s Bread Ministries is worthy of support – in prayer, of course, but when possible also financially – regardless of your religious tradition.

Spiritual Treasure in Filthy Rags

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

Nun Macaria Spiritual Treasure in Filthy Rags: An Introduction to the Paisian Tradition through the Optina Elders Theosis Books, 2016


“This little book introduces the reader to the Paisian tradition from his time through to the lives of the Optina Elders, giving a brief history of how this spiritual transmission developed from the labors and spiritual hunger of St. Paisius Velichkovsky on Mount Athos to his disciples in the Roslavl forests in Russia to the Optina Monastery which over the course of 100 years produced a series of fourteen charismatic elders. This is the tradition that gives us the Philokalia, The Kollyvades Fathers, and the spiritual renewals of Greece and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.”


Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794), also Paisius of Neamt, led the renaissance in Orthodox monasticism in the late eighteenth century, helping the Church recover from the decline in monastic life and spirituality caused by the troubles and conflicts of the previous centuries. His effort was centered on the spirituality of the hesychastic tradition, which was expressed in the popularity of counseling by starets (elders) in nineteenth-century Russia.

For Paisius, see:


Schemamonk Metrophanes and Fr. Seraphim Rose Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man Behind the Philokalia Saint Herman Press, 2nd revised edition, 1994

John A. McGuckin “The Life and Mission of St Paisius Velichkovsky 1722-1794. An Early Modern Master of The Orthodox Spiritual Life” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2009, pp. 157-173 Available on-line at:



Holy Men of Mount Athos

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

Alexander Alexakis (Editor) Holy Men of Mount Athos (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library) Harvard University Press, 2016


“Often simply called the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos was the most famous center of Byzantine monasticism and remains the spiritual heart of the Orthodox Church today. This volume presents the Lives of Euthymios the Younger, Athanasios of Athos, Maximos the Hutburner, Niphon of Athos, and Philotheos. These five holy men lived on Mount Athos at different times from its early years as a monastic locale in the ninth century to the last decades of the Byzantine period in the early fifteenth century. All five were celebrated for asceticism, clairvoyance, and, in most cases, the ability to perform miracles; Euthymios and Athanasios were also famed as founders of monasteries.

Holy Men of Mount Athos illuminates both the history and the varieties of monastic practice on Athos, individually by hermits as well as communally in large monasteries. The Lives also demonstrate the diversity of hagiographic composition and provide important glimpses of Byzantine social and political history.

All the Lives in this volume are presented for the first time in English translation, together with authoritative editions of their Greek texts.”


“No monastic setting is more renowned than Mount Athos, a rocky and isolated peninsula on the Aegean Sea in northern Greece. Since the ninth century Mount Athos, known as the Holy Mountain, has been the home of many holy and saintly monks.

Today it remains the home of some twenty monasteries and more than 2,000 Orthodox monks, each of whom owes a debt to the five monks whose lives are included in Holy Men of Mount Athos, recently published by Harvard University Press as part of its Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series.

Edited and translated by Richard P.H. Greenfield and Alice-Mary Talbot, Holy Men of Mount Athos brings to light the lives of five holy and saintly men who became icons of Christ on the Holy Mountain: Euthymios the Younger (823/24-898), Athanasios of Athos (925/30-ca. 1001), Maximos the Hutburner (1272/85-1367/80), Niphon of Athos (1315-1411), and Philotheos of Athos (ca.1366-1450).

The editors, who include the Greek text alongside the English, each translated two lives and collaborated on the translation of one. Along with their work, they include Stamatina McGrath’s translation of the “Life of Philotheos of Athos.” In addition, Alexander Alexakis served as editor for the “Life of Euthymios the Younger.” Of these lives, only that of Athanasios has been translated from the Greek into any language.

It is remarkable that these biographies of these five ascetical masters escaped the notice of earlier translators. The lives in this collection range in length, from the thirteen-page “Life of Philotheos” to the 121-page “Life of Athanasios.” But regardless of the length, each work engages with scenes from the life that teach us how to live as holy and virtuous Christians.


St. Euthymios the Younger, for example, teaches us about obedience to a spiritual father. To test Euthymios’ resolve to become a monk, his obedience and his humility, his spiritual father presents him to others as a murderer. When asked if he is a murderer, Euthymios says that he is and is then bound. Only the intercession of his spiritual father prevents him from being condemned as a criminal.


Considered one of the greatest of the holy men of Mount Athos, St. Athanasios attracted a great number of monks, men who through his guidance excelled in ascetical feats. His example was so great that even solitary monks gave up their way of life to live in community.

Athanasios is highly respected for establishing the Great Lavra, the oldest monastery still in existence on Mount Athos. Along with this great accomplishment, his is a life that teaches us about compassion as he sought to heal the whole suffering monk. The anonymous author of his life in this collection writes:

“As for the compassion which he had for his fellow human beings, what words could one use to praise it sufficiently? For if he came across anyone who was an outcast, or apathetic, worn out, or indolent, perhaps because they were sick or maimed or an alcoholic or had had their life ruined in some other way, he would welcome them all and help them, and provide them with the best physical and spiritual care.”

St. Athanasios taught monks to care for both body and soul, and so like St. Benedict before him he put the idle to work “so that, by being forced to focus their attention there, they would be delivered from wicked thoughts and come to repentance.”

To prevent monks from falling into sin while they worked Athanasios “made it an unbreakable rule that they were to sing psalms and not engage in idle conversation.”


The humble Maximos the Hutburner, thought by some to be a holy fool because he would burn his home and move whenever other monks came to live near him, constantly prayed to the Mother of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he could not be distracted from his prayer.


After Gregory of Sinai arrives at Mount Athos, the great teacher of contemplation and prayer of the heart hears of Maximos and wishes to meet him. When they meet and speak, Maximos says of himself that he is deranged.

After hearing his story, Gregory, who eventually convinces Maximos to settle down, is led to respond, “If only I were deranged like you, holy one.”

The dialogue between these two great men of prayer is reminiscent of some of the conferences of Saint John Cassian, and the wisdom unsurpassable. In response to Gregory’s comment on the light of delusion, Maximos gives one of the best descriptions we might find of holy light:

“Again the signs of grace are as follows: when the holy light approaches, it focuses the mind and makes it thoughtful and humble and modest; and it instills in the soul the recollection of death and of the last judgment and of sins, and indeed also of the punishment of hellfire; and it makes the heart contrite, sorrowful and tearful, and makes the eyes meek and full of tears.

As it approaches, it calms and comforts the soul through the venerable sufferings of Christ and His infinite love of mankind. It instills in the mind the most lofty, unerring visions . . . and thus the holy light illuminates the mind with the illumination of divine knowledge. ”

Theophanes spends six chapters on Gregory and Maximos, and they alone make his life of Maximos a masterpiece. They encapsulate the spirituality of Mount Athos, and they show us what it means to be a contemplative and to experience prayer of the heart.

Holy Men of Mount Athos is a special work. Through the efforts of Greenfield and Talbot, we now have five biographical works that increase our knowledge of life on Mount Athos and at the same time enrich our lives as Christians seeking to live, as did these five holy men, as icons of Christ in the world.”

From Kevin Bezner “Holy Light from Deranged Saints of Mount Athos” The Christian Review, October 11, 2016. Full text available on-line at:




Medieval Anchorites in Their Communities

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2016 by citydesert

Cate Gunn and Liz Herbert McAvoy (Editors) Medieval Anchorites in Their Communities (Studies in the History of Medieval Religion) D.S. Brewer, 2017


“Much of the research into medieval anchoritism to date has focused primarily on its liminal and elite status within the socio-religious cultures of its day. The anchorite has long been depicted as both solitary and alone, almost entirely removed from community and living a life of permanent withdrawal and isolation: in effect dead to the world. The essays in this volume, stemming from a variety of cross-disciplinary approaches and methodologies, lay down a challenge to this position, breaking new ground in their presentation of the medieval anchorite and other types of enclosed solitary as playing a central role within the devotional life of a whole range of complex and multifaceted communities: ones that were simultaneously synchronic and diachronic, physical and metaphysical, religious, secular, textual – and gendered. It therefore offers its readers a new way of understanding the operations of the solitary life in the Middle Ages and its interdependence with a whole array of communities, ultimately adding to our knowledge of how spiritual “aloneness” could be pursued ardently, even in the midst of communal interaction. Contributors: Diana Denissen, Clare Dowding, Clarck Dreishen, Cate Gunn, Catherine Innes-Parker, E.A. Jones, Dorothy Kim, Godelinde Perk, James Plumtree, Michelle Sauer, Sophie Sawicka-Sykes, Andrew Thornton OSB.”

See also:


Mari Hughes-Edwards Reading Medieval Anchoritism: Ideology and Spiritual Practices University of Wales Press, 2012

“This interdisciplinary study of medieval English anchoritism from 1080-1450, explodes the myth of the anchorhold as solitary death-cell, reveals it instead as the site of potential intellectual exchange, and demonstrates an anchoritic spirituality in synch with the wider medieval world.”


Liz Herbert McAvoy Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life D.S. Brewer, 2011)

“Originating in the deserts of northern Africa in the early years of Christianity, anchoritism, or the enclosed solitary life, gradually metamorphosed into a permanent characteristic of European religiosity; from the twelfth century onwards, and throughout the middle ages, it was embraced with increasing enthusiasm, by devoted laywomen in particular. This book investigates the wider cultural importance of medieval anchoritism within the different religious landscapes and climates of the period. Drawing upon a range of contemporary gender and spatial theories, it focuses on the gender dynamics of this remarkable way of life, and the material spaces which they generated and within which they operated. As such, it unites related – but too often discrete – areas of scholarship, including early Christian anchoritism, anchoritic guidance texts and associated works, fourteenth and fifteenth-century holy women with close anchoritic connections, and a range of other less known works dealing with or connected to the anchoritic life.”




The Way of the Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on November 25, 2016 by citydesert

Mario I. Aguilar The Way of the Hermit: Dialogues of Silence as Contributions to a Christian-Hindu Dialogue Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017


“At first sight the lives of hermits, living in solitude and committed to a life of solitude, prayer and contemplation seems to be a world apart of the active practice of interfaith dialogue. Yet, there is a long tradition of seeking the divine together and thus making a contribution to better mutual understanding and an active contribution to peace between Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism in India.

Drawing on his experience of travelling to some of India’s holy places, the life and work of writers like Thomas Merton, Charles de Foucauld and Abishaktanda and being himself a Benedictine hermit and Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, Mario Aguilar opens up new possibilities for dialogue between three of the world’s major religions in today’s world. He shows how his own experience of an eremitic life has brought him into deep communion with pilgrims of other faiths, be it through shared silence or listening to each other’s experience, through reading sacred scriptures together, through poetry or interfaith worship that draws on practices and texts from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.

This is a book for all engaged in interfaith dialogue and seeking to explore how spiritualities of silence, contemplation and prayer can make a contribution to peace and harmony in the world today.”

“In this mindful study of the far-reaching sanctity of silence and contemplation, Catholic Benedictine hermit and Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews Mario Aguilar opens up new possibilities for dialogue between three of the world’s major religions. Observing the shared value of quiet and independent prayer in the history of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, Aguilar reveals that monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic religions have more in common than we may presume.

Aguilar’s findings emerge from a balance of travels in India, original thought, comparative readings of holy texts, research conducted at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews, and his own experience as a hermit. The book offers examples of prayers, rites and liturgies which create opportunities for interfaith unity and harmony.

This book is a must-read for anyone curious about the pursuit of inner peace through independent contemplation. It is also an eye-opening read for all who wish to learn about divinity, spiritual philosophy and the hermit’s way of life.”

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. He is also the author of:


Christian Ashrams, Hindu Caves and Sacred Rivers: Christian-Hindu Monastic Dialogue in India 1950-1993 Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016

“In late 20th-century India, Christian-Hindu dialogue was forever transformed following the opening of Shantivanam, the first Christian ashram in the country. Mario I. Aguilar brings together the histories of the five pioneers of Christian-Hindu dialogue and their involvement with the ashram, to explore what they learnt and taught about communion between the two religions, and the wide ranging consequences of their work.

The author expertly threads together the lives and friendships between these men, while uncovering the Hindu texts they used and were influenced by, and considers how far some of them became, in their personal practice, Hindu. Ultimately, this book demonstrates the impact of this history on contemporary dialogue between Christians and Hindus, and how both faiths can continue to learn and grow together.”


Asceticism Reimagined

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2016 by citydesert

“I don’t need to tell anyone reading this how technology, ease of movement, and relative wealth have opened up myriad ways for us to spend or waste our time; or how readily we can feel ourselves adrift in oceanic abundance, buffeted by the possibilities swelling about us while goaded by commercial entities to indulge our every desire and whim. Less noticed, however, is the fact that, in the face of hyper-abundance, many of us are adopting programs of self-discipline that have evolved along with new conceptions of fitness and wellness.

Consider L., the founder and CEO of a successful start-up. With long work days and stacked responsibilities, she has nevertheless ordered her life around a set of strictures meant to boost her physical performance and overall well-being. She manages to work out six days a week, sometimes twice a day, which means that L. has given up the hours often reserved for carousing or binge-watching television. Beyond this, she also restricts the foods she allows herself to eat, so as to maximize her energy levels and recovery, both of which are also boosted by her precise sleep schedule. L. has even set aside specific days to rest physically and mentally–a self-imposed secular Sabbath, if you will. Although L. is at the avant-garde of today’s austerity practices, her example suggests the dizzying variety of types of self-denial that people get up to.

Some leave off tracking their Instagram or Facebook feed while tanning at the park in favor of working through yoga postures, which has in turn driven them to abstain from processed foods and added sugars. Others carve away their morning television in order to meditate, and maybe in addition to that practice they’ve given up meat for vegetarianism. Some might be training for an obstacle race at the same hour that they used to devote to post-work drinks, and they too sleep and eat in a manner that is calibrated for athletic performance.

There is a growing movement of people who regularly fast, for other than religious reasons.

These are not the sackcloth-wearing, world-renouncing hermits we tend to associate with asceticism; they are people we know and live among. It seems to me they are fulfilling a wish, voiced over a century ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he wrote that he wanted to make asceticism “natural again.” Nietzsche believed religious—more specifically, Christian—asceticism, the mortification of the flesh with whips and gruel, is unnatural because it aims at abnegation of the self and, ultimately, the world. He looked instead to an older, Classical and pre-Christian, model.


The word ascetic derives from the ancient Greek askesis, which means exercise or training. For the Greeks, the foundational model of askesis was inculcated in the gymnasion (from which we derive the word gymnasium), such as Plato’s Academy, where the training was athletic, intellectual, and ethical. Throughout the Classical era, a number of forms of ascetic training developed. Perhaps the best-known of these technologies of the self, to borrow Michel Foucault’s term, is Stoic philosophy, which has enjoyed a not-so-quiet revival in recent years. (Articles on those adopting it have appeared in numerous outlets, from Forbes to The New York Times.) Classical askesis was oriented toward self-mastery, the better to live in the world. At the end of the Classical era, the first Christian monks took this notion of askesis—alluding to the centrality of physical exercises by calling themselves “athletes for Christ”—and morphed it into an asceticism that sought to free the soul from the body. Self-mastery gave way to self-abnegation, physical training to a denigration of the physical, worldliness to otherworldliness. This is the form of asceticism that we in the West have been familiar with for nearly two millennia. (Eastern forms differ by not separating mind and body, but not so much that they don’t still seek spiritual purity through self-abnegation and disciplining the mind-body.)

To make asceticism natural again means embracing the world and the body; it means renouncing certain luxuries and indulgences in an affirmative mode—not because particular foods or ways of spending time are inherently evil but because we prefer, on ethical grounds, other foods and activities.


“I abhor all those moralities which say: ‘Do not do this! Renounce!…’ writes Nietzsche. “But I am well disposed toward those moralities which goad me to do something and do it again, from morning till evening, and then to dream of it at night… When one lives like that, one thing after another that simply does not belong to such a life drops off… What we do should determine what we forego; by doing we forego.”

When, at a restaurant, my sister teasingly accuses me of having orthorexia for waving away the bread basket, she is not identifying in me some moral denunciation of wheat; she’s inadvertently registering my joyful anticipation of waking up the next morning feeling energized, my body recovered from the previous day’s exertions. Eschewing bread is a happy choice: if I want to load up on—relatively—empty carbs, I’ll eat a pint of ice cream.

However, embracing the world and its sweets also entails an implicit rejection of the old, Western division of mind and body. When we practice such disciplines as yoga and meditation in their contemporary forms, we are, like Walt Whitman, asking: “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

But if the point is no longer spiritual purification, what is the appeal of such regimes? The Stoics, I think, gave the answer most pertinent to our lives today. “We ought not to make our exercises consist in means contrary to nature,” says Epictetus. Rather the goal of our self-mastering exercises is: “Neither to be disappointed in that which you desire, nor to fall into anything which you would avoid.” If ascetics today subject their minds and bodies to rigorous discipline, it is because these exercises provide both the means and the model for training our faculty of choice—for helping us to know ourselves well enough to know what to desire and, most critically, how to spend our ever shrinking time. Having a set of practices that aid us in filtering out the noise of marketing, in navigating the maze of goods placed before us, and in saying yes or no to various leisure activities is like having a sharp knife that we can use to whittle our lives into an artfully deliberate shape.

From Daniel Kunitz “Asceticism Reimagined” – full text available on-line at:

Daniel Kunitz is the author of LIFT: Fitness Culture from Naked Greeks and Amazons to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors Harper Wave, 2016. He writes about the body, the culture of fitness, as well as art and other topics for such publications as Harper’s and The Wall Street Journal. His blog is at:


“How did treadmills and weight machines become the gold standard of fitness? Why have some of us turned our backs on the mirrors and gleaming devices of the traditional gym? What is the appeal of the stripped-down, functional approach to fitness that’s currently on the rise?

In this captivating narrative, Daniel Kunitz sets out on a journey through history to answer these questions and more. What he finds is that, while we humans have been conditioning our bodies for more than 2,500 years, we’ve done so for a variety of reasons: to imitate gods, to be great warriors, to build nations and create communities, to achieve physical perfection, and, of course, to look good naked. Behind each of these goals is a story and method of exercise that not only illuminates the past but also sheds light on aspects of the widespread, multi-faceted fitness culture of today.

Lift begins with the ancient Greeks, who made a cult of the human body—the word “gymnasium” derives from the Greek word for “naked”—and then takes us on an enlightening tour through time, following Asian martial artists, Persian pahlevans, nineteenth-century German gymnasts, and the bronzed bodies of California’s Muscle Beach. Kunitz uncovers the seeds of the modern gym in the late nineteenth-century with the invention of the first weightlifting machines, and brings us all the way up to the ultimate game-changer: the feminist movement, which kicked off the exercise boom of the 1970s with aerobics, and ultimately helped create the big-box gyms we know today.

Using his own decade-long journey to transform himself from a fast-food junkie into an ultra-fit—if aging—athlete as a jumping off point, Kunitz argues that another exercise revolution is underway now—a new frontier in fitness, in which the ideal of a bikini body is giving way to a focus on mastering the movements of life.”


The Survival Secrets of Solitaries

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2016 by citydesert

The negative effects – indeed, the destructive effects – of solitude on some people have been extensively studied. Most of the studies concern what might be thought of as enforced solitude, and many of them have looked at those who live alone through no choice of their own (for example, older people) and those in coerced solitude (for example, prisoners in solitary confinement).


Hermits do not live in enforced solitude, but choose the solitary life, Nevertheless, they are no less likely to experience some of the negative, or even destructive, effects of solitude.

The paper, “The survival secrets of solitaries” by Ian O’Donnell, Professor of Criminology at University College Dublin, is based on studies of prisoners in solitary confinement:

“It is difficult to imagine a more disenchanting and disempowering place than a solitary confinement cell in a high-security prison. When opportunities for meaningful human engagement are stripped away, mental health difficulties arise with disturbing regularity. In the US, where prisoners can be held in isolation for many years for administrative reasons, stories of psychological disintegration are common…. Hans Toch has written about the ‘cold, suffocating vacuum’ that is the isolation cell and how ‘it remains a tragic fact that our ultimate tool for dealing with fear-obsessed persons defies and defeats their regeneration: We isolate such persons, make them feel trapped, and seal their fate. We place those who are their own worst enemies face to face with themselves, alone, in a void.’ Some find the burden of self-examination to be unbearable.”


Ian O’Donnell Prisoners, Solitude, and Time Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014

O’Donnell was particularly interested to identify the strategies developed and used by prisoners in isolation to enable them to survive. His findings may provide valuable insights for those who freely choose solitude as Hermits into approaches to ensuring that they can avoid, or at least manage, the negative effects of solitude.

“My research revealed a number of ways that prisoners mitigate the harmful effects of time spent alone in a place not of their choosing and to a timetable not of their design. I call these the ‘seven Rs of survival’. The emphasis here is not on general patterns of adaptation to imprisonment but on how individuals respond to the specific exigencies of enforced solitude and the passing of long stretches of time. Some prisoners master none of these techniques and their time in solitary confinement results in withdrawal, destructive rumination, cognitive impairment, depression, self-harm and, exceptionally, suicide.

The survival stratagems of successful solitaries are discussed next in ascending order of importance and in descending order of prevalence. Rescheduling, Removal, Reduction, and Reorientation are commonly used and moderately effective. Resistance is less common but can sustain a prisoner for some time (although belligerence is fatiguing). Raptness, when mastered, is an effective way of truncating perceived duration and investing time with meaning. Reinterpretation is rare but potent.

Turning first to Rescheduling. This involves using different intervals to gauge the passage of time. Sociologists Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor (1972, p.97) described how a recent arrival at Durham Prison who sought advice on how to structure a 20-year sentence was told, ‘It’s easy, do it five years at a time.’ While there is obviously a measure of bravado associated with the idea that there could be anything easy about this process other than verbalising it, there is no doubt that a schedule broken down into meaningful chunks seems more manageable. Few people measure their lives in 20-year blocks, but a five-year term can be grasped. This is the around the length of time spent in secondary school and a little more than the interval between football World Cups.


Removal involves routine work and exercise, busyness as an end in itself; this alleviates the sources of stress and anxiety that can protract duration. For the literate prisoner, reading can serve this purpose by restocking the mind, allowing imaginative engagement with a text and its characters, and making the prisoner part of a community of readers. Others devise exercise regimes that do not require a training partner but that fill time and bring about a satisfying kind of tiredness. When relationships cannot be formed with human beings they are forged with other creatures instead, such as insects, mice and birds. Prisoners personify, and become attached to, animals that might otherwise be an irritating distraction. This offers an outlet for humanity’s innate sociability, what neuroscientist John Cacioppo and science editor William Patrick (2008, p.63) characterised as our ‘obligatorily gregarious’ natures…

Reorientation involves resetting temporal horizons so that the focus is on the present. If prisoners are to survive psychologically it is important that they shift their time orientation. Dwelling on the past and any associated remorse or regret, or obsessing about a future life that is unlikely to arrive in the wished-for format, introduces a degree of fretfulness that is inimical to successful navigation of the temporal landscape. The solitary prisoner who can achieve immersion in the present has stolen an important advantage over his or her environment. Having been wrenched from the world, they find themselves – at no inconsiderable cost – adopting a temporal orientation that is occasionally accompanied by mindfulness…

Some prisoners survive through Resistance. A simple way of subverting the system of solitary confinement is to undermine its prohibition on social intercourse, something men and women have been adept at doing since the first attempts were made to isolate them. Prisoners communicate by tapping on walls and pipes, leaving written messages for others to find, or prevailing upon a sympathetic staff member to act as their messenger. Fighting staff is another way of resisting but it is seldom chosen. The marked power imbalance that exists between the parties and the relative availability of equipment and reinforcements, mean that the almost certain victor in any such encounter is the member of staff. Some prisoners resist through litigating, and from their isolation cells they use the courts to further their ends.

Raptness is absorption in an activity like creative writing or craftwork. As well as speeding the passage of time, it results in a product that may enhance the self-respect and status of the person who produced it, setting them apart in terms of accomplishment. This distinguishes it from involvement in prison work more generally, in which the individual may invest no particular significance beyond its value as a Removal activity. Raptness is about following pursuits that are meaningful and individuating. As well as helping time to pass, such pursuits invest it with purpose and this further reduces its weight.

Finally, there is Reinterpretation. For prisoners who can re-cast their predicament the potential rewards are substantial. Those who can devise, or adopt, a frame of reference – often political or religious – that puts their pain in context seem to draw succour from their circumstances. For the fortunate few who can re-imagine their situation, the potential rewards are substantial.”

An extract from: Ian O’Donnell “The survival secrets of solitaries”, The Psychologist, Vol 29., March 2016 – full text available on-line at:

Finding Solitude in an Era of Perpetual Contact

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2016 by citydesert

“Being alone has many benefits. It grants freedom in thought and action. It boosts creativity. It offers a terrain for the imagination to roam. Solitude also enriches our connections with others by providing perspective, which enhances intimacy and fosters empathy.

To be sure, solitude is not always experienced positively. At times, and for certain people, it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In that sense, solitude is a two-sided coin, as is the case with other necessities in life, like food. As with food, we can benefit from being mindful of the quantity and quality of solitude we experience in daily life.

This true of both deliberate solitude and those moments of being alone that are inadvertently stumbled upon. Both varieties of solitude have the capacity to deliver the benefits mentioned above, but the latter may be heading toward the endangered species   list, at least for some folks.

In social psychology, solitude has traditionally been defined and measured as being physically alone, or in some cases not engaging with people who are also physically present. Since that foundation was laid, times have changed, as have the possibilities for “being with” others.

You are probably familiar with the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” After combing through the scholarly research on solitude last summer, I came up with a new version: “If a person is alone in the forest when a tree falls, but they don’t notice it because they’re texting, does it still count as solitude?”

Did you notice, or were you too busy texting?

With mobile and social media, we now carry our networks around with us, and new possibilities for perpetual contact pose problems for solitude – not only for how it is experienced, but also for how it is studied. If all of our old ideas for thinking about and measuring solitude no longer apply, then we lack the scientific tools needed to further our understanding of it. Without accounting for the ways people connect in the digital realm through the Internet and mobile media, we have no way of knowing how much solitude people get, how they benefit or suffer from it, or different ways in which it is experienced. When I finished reading up on solitude last summer, I was left with the feeling that the study of it had hit a dead end, and was ready for a reboot.

That reboot began last fall when MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation was published [Penguin Press, 2015].


Turkle’s book has garnered both high praise and rebuke for its critical view of digital media and the degradation of face-to-face conversation. Setting that debate aside for the moment, the book also makes some points that help push the conversation about solitude into the digital era.

One of Turkle’s arguments is that being able to connect anytime-anywhere means never having to experience unwanted solitude… This is a problem because, as Turkle puts it, “In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation.” For her, the fundamental problem is how technology, especially mobile communication, makes it easy for us to avoid mundane boredom in daily life. Beyond boredom, we can talk about some other key reasons why someone might opt for a smartphone over their own thoughts during periods of downtime – and why there is a greater need for deliberate solitude for those interested in the benefits of being alone…

We live in a time when expectations for being accessible are high. Sociologist Rich Ling attributes this to mobile communication’s transition from something new into a taken-for-granted assumption, like telling time.

Layout 1 (Page 1)      mobile-connection

When mobile communication was a novelty, it was special to be able to connect “on the fly.” No longer. Ling’s theoretical argument about high expectations of accessibility is well-supported by a recent survey in the U.S. in which 80 percent of teens reported checking their phone hourly, and 72 percent said they feel the need to respond to messages immediately.

As mobile communication becomes embedded at the social level, it also moves toward the background of cognitive processing. People do not put as much conscious thought into their use of common artifacts, such as watches, staplers, and now mobile devices, when they become a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. In fact, habitual (i.e., less conscious) mobile phone use is part of the explanation for why people text while driving.

Mobile communication is now more like a second skin than a new innovation. When it beckons, people respond, often automatically. Even when our mobile devices do nothing at all, we sometimes automatically react to “phantom vibrations.” Mobile habits can also be triggered by emotional states and the environment…

If people turn to these devices without thinking during life’s amazing moments, it makes sense that we would do the same during those moments of unintended solitude. This tendency is exacerbated by the pull of expectations to be accessible anytime and anywhere. I am not arguing that everyone needs more solitude in their life. However, with unintentional solitude no longer mandatory, it might be a good idea for us to direct more thought into intentionally carving out times, places, and activities for being alone, not just in the realm of atoms and molecules, but in the realm of bits and bytes as well.”

From Scott Campbell (Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Professor of Telecommunication, University of Michigan) “Finding solitude in an era of perpetual contact”. Full text available on-line at: