Before 2003 I thought that hermits were extinct – as dead as a Dodo. I had heard of some of the medieval hermit saints, but in the 21st century, in Britain, surely not.
Yet now I am an anchorite, as was Julian of Norwich, and for one precious year the bishop locked me in. I had a bed area, a shower room, an enclosed garden of 10 square feet, and my oratory with the wicket window opening into our chapel. I had stable doors, the top half being under my control, the lower half locked. I was a “prisoner of the Lord”: no radio, phone, or internet. It was a wonderful year, but due to us moving it could not be prolonged after the initial trial year.
How did I, a professional woman in my 50s become a medieval-style anchorite? Well, it was a shock. I worked while looking after my mother, until her death in 2002. The next year, I was helping in Lourdes when I felt God calling me. So on my return I spoke to my parish priest and was very surprised when he referred me to a hermit-priest for vocations advice. We decided that I would become a consecrated virgin living in the world, but God had other ideas. Christ’s challenge to the rich young man kept coming back to haunt me: “Go, sell what you own… then come, follow me.”
So I sold my house and bought a caravan, and a year later became a novice hermit.
I thought that I had given up the chance to become a consecrated virgin – a spouse of Christ, but during my final profession as
a hermit the bishop also performed the beautiful 11th-century rite of the consecration of a virgin. The taking of public vows to the bishop as a hermit, and the rite of consecration as a virgin were both brought back into the Catholic Church at the time of Vatican II and are the oldest form of religious life in the Church, pre-dating the start of monastic life.
Throughout the medieval era there were hundreds of hermits. St Augustine of Canterbury was met by a Celtic hermit who acted as the spokesman for the Christian Britons. By the seventh century there were many “English” (Anglo-Saxon) hermits including such well-known saints as St Herbert of Derwentwater, St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne, and St Guthlac of Crowland. By the late medieval period there were at least 750 hermitages in England alone, probably many more, as this number only includes the ones about which the early 20th-century historian Rotha Mary Clay could reliably verify. To put it into context, in Norwich alone she found evidence of 14 hermitages and 18 anchor-holds. But this all came to an end at the time of the Reformation, when even a female anchorite who was over 100 years old was forcibly evicted from her anchorhold.
But what is this creature, a hermit or anchorite? It is someone who responds to Christ’s invitation to “come away to a lonely place alone and rest a while” (Mk. 6:31), whose heart and soul “is yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord”, because “my body pines for you, like a dry weary land without water. So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory.” (Ps 83:3 and Ps 62:2-3). Hermits like St John the Baptist, in being withdrawn from the world, tend to have a different overview of what is happening in the world, and so are voices “crying from the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mt. 3:3). And in this technological world that means careful use of the internet, therefore we have a website (Trumpeteer.co.uk).
Hermits must also be mindful of the Letter of St James: “If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the Scripture: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you do well. … If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:8, 14-17). Therefore hermits should, by one means or another, show charity towards others.
Before the Reformation hermits looked after the sick, maintained roads and bridges, and manned hermitages on coastal hillocks and cliffs, as at St Catherine’s on the Isle of Wight, so that they could keep a beacon burning to warn and guide sailors. Even anchorites, enclosed in their anchorholds, repaired the clothes of the poor. They were also “beadsmen”, praying for all who came requesting prayers. In fact Rotha Mary Clay states in her book, Hermits and Anchorites of England: “Hermits were the pioneers of philanthropic works which in these days are undertaken and carried out by public bodies.”
If people think of hermits at all, they usually think of them as solitaries or recluses, and that can be the case. But hermits often lived in groups (the Desert Fathers, for example) usually each to his own cell, but with the newer hermits sharing a cell with an “Abba” in order to learn the life first-hand. Medieval anchorites, on the other hand, were always solitaries, locked (or walled) up in a small dwelling attached to the side of a church, with a small window opening into the church through which they could see the Tabernacle and receive Holy Communion. Their cells were called anchorholds as they were supposed to “anchor” the church by their prayers. Although anchorites were solitaries, they were certainly not recluses, as they also had a window on to the street, through which they received their food, but also where people could talk to them and ask them to pray for their intentions. So all anchorites are hermits, but not all hermits are anchorites.
As far as what I personally do all day, I make candles and rosaries, I do religious embroidery and I try to pray. I pray for the world. I pray for those individuals who have asked for my prayers, I pray for the Church. I pray for the priests, both the good and the bad, but especially the bad, those to whom it can be said: “He that shall scandalise one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh” (Mt 18:6-7). And I pray for myself, that God may have mercy on me, a sinner.
To those who think that the hermit life is too horrific to consider, I would disagree, using the words of the 10th-century Eastern Orthodox hermit, Symeon the New Theologian:
Let me alone, sheltered in my cell.
Let me be with God, who alone is good.
Why should I move out of my cell?
Back to that which I left?
Let me be.
I want to cry and mourn over the days and nights I have wasted.