How to be a hermit.
This is one of the most commented on pages of my previous website, so I have copied it directly with a few updates. I hope you still find it useful.
I occasionally receive enquiries from folk asking for advice or support in pursuing their own vocation to the hermitage, so I put this page together. The information here is purely of a practical nature, and I write only from my own experience in the UK; it is not exhaustive, and things may be different in your locale and circumstances. I may add to it from time to time. Please let me know if you have further (practical) information which might be included.
The call to hermitage is often a gradual realisation, a growing affinity with solitude, a desire to know God in the ordinariness of simply being alive. It is a call which is falling on increasingly receptive ears. By nature, it is a very individual call, and each individual will realise it in a different way depending upon personal inspiration and circumstance.
I hope you will not be put off by the apparent lack of a support structure around the vocation. It is one of the great joys and freedoms that each one of us interprets the call to hermitage in such a different ways– it is essentially, perhaps, a call to “solitary living in the conscious presence of God”, though I know of hermits who live in small communities as well, so even the solitude is not a given!
You will find that much of the information on this page boils down to, “you have to work it out for yourself”. Please don’t be put off by that. It might take time – longer than you expect – and the solutions might appear to be at odds with any romantic ideals you might have been nursing at the outset, but with determination, a good dose of pragmatism, and a sense of adventure, all things are possible.
By way of encouragement, I discovered (after I had been here 10 years!) that the journey of getting to my hermitage (which took me 15 years) has become a part of the sort of hermit that I am. So don’t feel that the eremitical life only begins once you step over the threshold of your hermitage. This long search and struggle for stability is the beginning of it. God is with you.
I hope this page is helpful.
§1 Besides institutes of consecrated life the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life 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.
§2 A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels [i.e. chastity, poverty and obedience], confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.”
State of Life
There are very many different ways of living as a hermit within the Roman Catholic Church. A hermit can live anonymously, without being “recognised in the law” (of the church), or they can choose to make some sort of commitment, either privately or publicly. If public, this would usually be into the hands of the local ordinary (bishop). Again, the type of commitment can vary by arrangement with the ordinary.
A bishop will usually expect you to have devised a “rule of life” for yourself before accepting your vows. (more on that later).
If you are considering the possibility of becoming a “canonical” hermit by profession of the Evangelical Counsels you will need to refer to Canon 640ff (“canonical profession” simply means, “profession with reference to the Canons”) which describes the process and requirements (basically a minimum of one year’s discernment, one year’s postulancy, 2 years novitiate, 5 years simple profession – Cor Orans 2018). Or you might be able to come to some other arrangement with your bishop and still be professed, but not canonically…
There is no “hierarchy” of hermitage – no single type of commitment is more valid or worthy than another. Neither a canonical hermit nor a professed hermit , nor a privately vowed hermit is a “better” hermit than one who has taken no vows at all. Most hermits (from the little information which is available) are living simple, anonymous, solitary lives without advertisement.
Rule of Life
This is a guide for daily living. It should be useful rather than beautiful (though it can be both!). Some hermits prefer to adapt monastic rules, or a rule from a religious order to which they feel an affinity. Rules can be of varying length and detail– I have found the primary usefulness of mine to be a reference point for decision making; others might look for something which will more definitively structure their day. From experience I would caution against anything too rigid – it is likely you will be chief cook and bottle washer .. and porter .. and gardener. You will need to have the flexibility to respond easily to circumstance. I would suggest that drawing up a rule might be one of the occupations towards the end of the novitiate year – when you have more of a feel for how you will live in hermitage. We each do it so very differently!
(My own Rule of Life can be viewed here – the first several paragraphs are scriptural and canonical guidance. The practical bit is just the three lines at the end!)
Hermitage and living expenses
Whichever route you take, vowed or un-vowed, you will usually be expected to be self-supporting. There is no centralised source of practical nor financial support for hermits, nor any register of empty-hermitages-seeking-occupants, not in the UK anyway. You will need to find your own living place and some sort of income to pay the bills etc. Many hermits have a working life behind them & so are able to provide their own accommodation. Others are “donated” accommodation in return for caretaker or similar duties, or persuade a convent or monastery or other religious community to loan them an outhouse in return for labour. You have to be pretty pragmatic, determined, and prepared to explore lots of avenues! It isn’t easy.
In terms of work, and support from the state: in civil law you are expected to support yourself in the same way as everyone else. You can look for, and express a preference for work which enables you to work alone, but there is no special exemption which entitles you to benefits or financial support if you refuse to work at all, just because the work offered isn’t hermitage-friendly.
You may have the skills to earn a living from your hermitage – eg. book-keeping, accountancy, copy-writing, web design etc. all of which which might be financially viable ways of earning a living from your front room. Realistically, some of the more menial jobs like cleaning work and ground maintenance are usually plentiful and reasonably suitable as most cleaners/gardeners seem to work in solitude even if they are part of a team. (I worked as a solitary care assistant to a profoundly disabled woman for 5 years in her own home, which worked out very well). You may find previous skills can be adjusted to become more hermit-friendly eg. my teaching experience still provides a firm basis for occasional private tutoring.
From experience, the pursuit of the artisanal work traditionally associated with hermits and monastics, does not provide a reliable, nor sufficient source of income – not to an unknown hermit – unless you are at the top of your artisanal game and already earning a living this way. Many of these types of activities which help support established monastic communities are reliant on the regular footfall of associates and affiliates to the communities, and the publicity which is inherent in their longstanding, their USP, and the loyalty of their local churches. If it works for you – then great! But if you are just setting out and hoping to make your living from weaving baskets all day, then I would advise you to have a plan B to fall back on. Sometimes God’s providence makes itself best known in the guise of a bit of realistic and prudent forethought.
If you are seriously exploring a vocation to hermitage then it would be wise to enlist the support of a spiritual director. The life of the solitary can throw any number of oddities and curve balls at you, and it is as well to have some one you can freely consult and who will be able to advise you. Try and find someone with a mature and committed prayer life of their own, who will take you, and hermitage, seriously, who is not in awe of the solitary life, and who will not pander to your whims and fancies!
This may not have been the sort of information you were hoping for. Launching into hermitage is not the same as entering an established religious order – there is none of the security and stability which might be found in other forms of consecrated life. It is an adventure with God which will require of you every last wit and ingenuity. I pray and hope for God’s blessing on you.
In prayer, in God.
Rachel (Hermit of the Diocese of Nottingham)