Lay Hermits, by Eugene Stockton

This article was originally published in the Australia journal Compass Theology Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2000, pages 46-50, and is reprinted here with permission of the author. Fr. Stockton is a Catholic priest in Australia. (Section headings added and paragraph sizes edited to facilitate on-line reading.)

Seekers of solitude came to my attention with the writing of Wonder: A Way to God (1998). It became clear that there is a natural affinity between certain types of prayer and a certain style of life. There are stages or levels of mysticism where one is alone with God anyway and a person tends to enframe that in a mode of living.

During research for the book and from reactions afterwards I became aware that many Christians, without a vocation to the religious state, were seeking a deeper spiritual commitment, though that might mean opting out of normal concourse, even of religion. The title of this study became for me a shorthand term for such seekers of solitude.

Sinetar's "secular monks"

People are naturally suspicious of this way of life. Hermits are assumed to be odd, anti-social, psychotic or just drop-outs from society. Such assumptions are dispelled in a book by Marsha Sinetar synthesising case studies of "secular monks" (i.e. whether or not religiously motivated) and closely following the observations and terminology of Abraham Maslow. Her findings can be backed up by the biographies assembled by Peter France.

In general Sinetar concludes that such people display remarkably balanced and integrated personalities, that their mode of life is a means of "self-actualization" (Maslow's term). They typically go through two stages, first a radical pulling back from others, secondly a beginning of service to others ("stewardship"). All the while personal growth ensues with increased self- knowledge and the ability to live out their true selves, their "authentic personality".

From her case studies can be listed the typical characteristics of the solitary:

  1. Social transcendence
    An emotional independence or detachment from societal influences (rules, customs, idols, etc. of the external world) as one pursues the inner call to become more what one already is, ”one's personal truth."
  2. Autonomy
    Maslow understands autonomous individuals to be those ruled by the laws of their own character, rather than by the laws of society. There is an inner authority, tied to one's own integrity and truth, to which one obeys. This can at times express itself as a voice of discontent within oneself.
  3. Sacrifice
    Sacrifice is inevitable in answering the call to social detachment, that is detachment from collective opinions, customs and security, from living unconsciously, from the direct and safe routes to accomplishment, from risk-avoiding tendencies and ultimately from one's own separateness ("the personal small self')
  4. Metamotivation
    Maslow's term for a motivational thrust to wholeness. As self-actualization develops a person knows self as part of an integrated whole and wants to function effectively and responsibly as such. It is precisely in standing back that one sees things (including self) as a whole.
  5. Structure
    The externals of place and time are ordered to enlarge the precious time to be. A person's resources are ordered for independence and self-sufficiency, tending to a life style of frugality and "voluntary simplicity". One deliberately scales down social obligations.
  6. Radical break
    Radical break from ordinary life to follow one's inner dictates to live truthfully. Such a break is both perceptual and physical and can come at considerable cost but with a great awareness of the real self.
  7. Growth in stewardship
    Subsequent to one's radical withdrawal, metamotivation leads one to a sense of kinship or relatedness to others-as-self, to an expenditure of one's recognised gifts for the whole and a giving of self through a strong emotion of love.
  8. Self-discovery
    Coming to a greater knowledge of oneself, a person also discovers in oneself abilities
  9. to

Marsha Sinetar's enthusiastic appraisal of the secular monk and his/her life style may strike the cynic as another of the personal development publications which seem to stream out of the United States. And indeed her subtitle "Lifestyles for Self-discovery" would sound bizarre to a person driven by a love of God, with a recklessness of self; but one can sympathetically see a case of grace building on nature, that the kind of life to which one is drawn by grace is inherently and humanly sound.

My study of lay hermits

In 1999 Bishop Kevin Manning (Diocese of Parramatta) granted me three months leave to study lay hermits. In Australia I contacted a few who were trying out this kind of life but their efforts tended to be experimental and isolated. Then I shifted my attention to the United Kingdom where there was a longer experience of the solitary life. It was of course more prevalent before the Reformation.

At the time of Julian of Norwich there were said to be some 40 or 50 solitaries living within the walls of Norwich. Frequently a monastery or parish church had a cell in which an anchorite lived out his/her life. Rather different was the hermit, as described by Clifton Wolters in his introduction to hermit Richard Rolle's The Fire of Love (pp. 18-19)

...Solitary he might be and remote from habitation in his cell, yet the hermit was not tied to it in the sense the anchorite was. He could roam at will, and often he did. He could move house whenever he wanted… Apart from the ideal of prayer which he shared with the anchorite, the hermit could practise good works impossible to the other and live a totally different sort of life. There are instances of hermits acting as unofficial lighthouse-keepers, in a day when a lighthouse service was unthought of; of hermits keeping bridges in repair, or mending roads, or guarding town gates, or ministering to lepers in lazar-houses, or acting as guides in difficult terrain, or collecting for charity, or being the recognized do-gooder of practical works in a district. There are few things they could not turn their minds to. Basically of course they prayed, counselled and advised. A hermit could even marry, seemingly without prejudice to his standing…

In this one is reminded of the Russian poustinik as described by Catherine de Hueck Doherty in her Poustinia.

Since its hey-day the eremitical life did not altogether disappear from the British scene but in recent decades it seems to have staged a comeback and now enjoys some public profile. There is a network linking isolated individuals in the Fellowship of Solitaries, with its own Newsletter (as in U.S.A. where Raven's Bread and The Roll reach out to many hermits).

There is also a high degree of official acceptance. An important landmark was the gathering of some of the leading exponents of this life from the major Churches at St. David's, Wales, in 1975, from which the papers were published in Solitude and Communion (1977).

In response to numerous requests for advice or help, the London-based Commission on the Economics of the Contemplative Life presented a well-considered paper on hermits calling for more official recognition, discernment, assistance and means of formation for hermits, while rejecting "any idea of institutionalising or uniforming the way of life."

There is one Catholic and two Anglican houses of formation, which however can channel only a trickle of candidates. The new Canon Law of the Catholic Church recognises the eremitical life as a specific vocation to be lived under the guidance of the diocesan Bishop (Canon 603). Some candidates have sought to make vows under this canon but Bishops are often hesitant to accept these applications, perhaps uncertain as to the commitments they thereby take on, while others have resorted to a few well-known and experienced hermits for advice.

For the purpose of my study I talked with Bishops, religious superiors and spiritual guides who had dealings with hermits. Solitaries themselves I found, as in former times, exhibited a wide variety of states and life styles. They were religious belonging to convents and monasteries, parish clergy in active ministry, married couples, business people, retirees, singles in high rise flats, women baby-sitting houses, animators of houses of prayer, a priest straddling a place of strict solitude and a place of hospitality, one like a guru or starets seeking and imparting wisdom in an Indian-style ashram, persons on the pilgrimage round of holy places or settled assisting at a holy place, dwellers of lonely locations, members of third orders, members of a skete (hermit community).

Many clearly exemplified one of the two stages noted by Marsha Sinetar:

  1. A radical withdrawal from society with an austere asceticism and rule of life
  2. A "return to the marketplace" embracing a stewardship of service to others. These, though less austere than formerly, showed an unmistakable holiness coupled with ease, urbanity and balance - possibly what Sinetar means by "authentic personality" and certainly a good advertisement for such a way of life.

The other characteristics noted by Marsha Sinetar were certainly in evidence, to a greater or lesser degree, in all the persons I interviewed, as will be detailed later on.

Can lay persons be hermits?

As my enquiries proceeded it became clear that the crucial question was whether lay persons could be hermits. Naturally the doubt arose among religious who quoted the Rules of St. Benedict and St. Francis, which counselled long maturing in the community before venturing out to combat the devil on one's own.

On the other hand lay persons felt that religious underrated the lay vocation and that the world, far from being a hostile arena, was for the laity a locus and means of sanctification. Just as land animals and sea animals may wonder how the other survives in their dangerous environment, for each the land and the sea respectively is their natural habitat, to which they are tuned to breathe vital oxygen. For lay persons the world is where holiness awaits them, the street is their cloister, the city bustle their liturgy.

The lay solitary, far from being a quasi-religious out of place in the world, is one who seeks solitude with God in the midst of the world, indeed in communion with the world. Some interviewees, familiar with Eastern traditions of mysticism, wondered whether religious practice and thinking might not be imbued with dualism (as evidenced by the language of combat and mortification) and that there might be a non-dualistic way of asceticism.

But what then is a hermit or solitary? The best definition I have come across is that of Paulo Giustiniani, who described himself as one "who seeks to live with God alone and for God alone." One is impelled by a passion for God alone, a passion that drives to a union that has to be absolute and exclusive.

This looks to expression in a certain lifestyle which may take many different forms, each sharply idiosyncratic to the individual so expressing him/herself. But when a suitable and desirable lifestyle is for the time being unattainable, there is still the seeking. Fr. Paul Gurr (Jamberoo, N.S.W.) aptly summed it up for me, that at base it is a matter of self-perception: one (like him) can be naturally gregarious yet feel alone in the midst of the crowd and on the journey one is overwhelmingly conscious that one's constant companion is God.

How does a lay person balance the demands of work and family with the solitary vocation? In fact I came across those who do so successfully, and there was no doubting their grace of solitude and their effective management of life's demands. Just as Orthodox theology speaks of transfiguration of the mystic one can also say that for the mystic the environment itself is transfigured. Teilhard de Chardin called it the divine milieu: our natural environment now seen to be charged with Christ. By faith, we find Christ in all about us, in the heart of matter, in the heart of the other.

A spiritual gradualist understanding of the Second Coming would have us on the look-out to welcome Christ constantly coming to us in the persons and things in our immediate environs. Surely in Christian marriage this would occur pre-eminently in one's spouse. This is consonant with the richest theology of marriage, yet tip-toeing on the edge of sexuality we seem unwilling to dare to press it home.

The Tantric Tradition, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, may contribute to our Christian appreciation of the spirituality of sexuality. Thomas Moore underlines the link between sensation and mystical experience, each feeding the other. Patricia Mullins claims that some accounts of sexual ecstasy show that it is akin to mystical ecstasy. More generally the senses, far from being enemies of the soul or at least a danger (as in older spiritualities) can be seen as oenings for God seeping through to us from our environment.

There arises the question of relative or rhythmic solitude. Just as a mystic is still a mystic even though not all the time wrapped in prayer, so a solitary need not be always in absolute solitude. St. Francis and other saints have been known to follow a rhythm of solitude and active ministry. The present Coptic Pope is said to alternate weekly between the solitude of his cell and the administration of his Church.

There is no reason why a housewife, once she has dropped off the children at school, might not find the next six hours a time to be alone with God, even in the midst of her chores. Likewise the traveller, whether on a prolonged journey or routine commuting, might echo the breviary hymn: “Alone with none but thee my God I journey on my way.”

Retired priests or those still in active ministry may feel called to solitude apart from their public functions, or even within them. It was objected to me that such compromises might seem to dilute the eremitical status. What is important for a person so called is not to strive to conform to a certain definition of hermit but to seek to answer the call to be alone with God in the given conditions of his/her life.

Characteristics compared

The study brought to the fore a set of characteristics which the interviewees tended to have in common. These could be compared with those listed by Sinetar, although there is no attempt to match her list one to one, or to use the categories of her discipline.

  1. Strong sense of call
    The subjects spoke of something stronger than the normal vocation (say to the priestly or religious state). For some it went back to childhood and often enough they spoke of being contented loners as children.

  2. Passion
    Naturally coupled with the foregoing, it was readily spoken of as a relentless fire, something like a primal urge to be one with God.

  3. Emotional distance from society
    This meant not only freedom from the pressures of civil society, but even from the concerns of the Church, such that one could look on Church happenings in a detached objective way. This needs delicate interpretation as it does not mean any lesser love of the Church or sense of belonging.

  4. Autonomy
    A sense of sureness in ordering one's own life, fixing priorities, omitting what seems superfluous or inappropriate (for that individual), appraising one's own
  5. Self-sufficiency
    Generally subjects did not look for support, whether material or spiritual, from Church or Congregation. It was understood one earned one's own keep or drew a pension.
  6. Simplicity
    This found expression not so much in poverty as in frugality. Possessions and concerns beyond one's present needs were seen as so much distracting baggage. Common was a disarming unconcern to provide for old age or sickness.
  7. Stillness and silence
    This was the treasured bonus afforded by a simple, uncluttered life. Some spoke of a rich emptiness which sourced all creativity in their life, an emptiness filled by God alone.
  8. Growth in stewardship
    As mentioned before, some found, after an initial radical withdrawal, a sense of service in the world by prayer or ministry without detriment to solitude, a sense of communion with others in loving concern and compassion. Following the daily news was a spur to prayer. I was reminded of flag-bearers accompanying an army into battle, unarmed, vulnerable, useless - except to show others direction and solidarity.
  9. Detachment
    A letting go of everything that has not to do with aloneness with God. There was a distinct wariness of being drawn into causes no matter how worthy or into activities (e.g. in the parish) which might develop into absorbing and distracting chores. For some, their way of life or location (like the Desert Fathers) might mean being deprived of the regular reception of the sacraments. In the spiritual life all such adjuncts are a means to an end and only God is the End, to whom some may be graced to attach themselves without intermediaries. All this calls for prudence and discernment, but it must be allowed that God may reveal Himself to the soul in ways out of the ordinary.

It is commonplace to compare the spiritual life to marriage. The image is all the more appropriate as the solitary goes out to seek her Lover, of which the following are pertinent:


My final observations are prompted from noting how some solitaries are more successful than others in their way of life. This does not suggest a list of judgments or imperatives but rather caveats. For example I became strongly aware of the advisability of having some sort of order in life, e.g., a loose timetable, a planned balance of activities, instead of letting things happen.

Some of the characteristics listed above need constant attention, e.g., there is need to keep working on simplicity (beware of collecting clutter), mindfulness (deliberate attention to little things) and stillness. Other traits come from the development of grace.

Above all at a time when it is fashionable to go after solitude for its own sake (as with some New Age exponents), or for the sake of personal ends (e.g. health, quiet, study, shamanic reputation, self- discovery, personal integration), the Christian solitary can entertain only one Goal, without any others accompanying, even in a minor role. The sole undivided focus must be God revealed to us in the incarnate Word. With Him alone one seeks solitude.

"Who seeks to live with God alone and for God alone."


  1. Allchin, A.M. (ed.) Solitude and Communion, Fairacres Publication No. 66 Oxford, 1977.
  2. Doherty, Catherine de Hueck, Poustinia, Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 1975.
  3. France, Peter, Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996.
  4. Moore, Thomas, The Soul of Sex: Cultivating life as an act of love. Harper-Collins, New York, 1998.
  5. Mullins, Patricia, "After the Games ...Theology from the perspective of an Australian woman" in Peter Malone (ed.) Developing an Australian Theologv. St Paul's Publications, Strathfield, 1999, pp.133-147.
  6. Sinetar, Marsha, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Self-discovery. Paulist Press, New York, 1986.
  7. Stockton, Eugene, Wonder: A Way to God, St Paul's Publications, Strathfield, 1999.
  8. Wolters, Clifton, (trans. of Richard Rolle's) The Fire of Love. Penguin Books, London, 1972.