Faith is a universal element of religious traditions everywhere, and even has a “data-sustaining” role in science and philosophy. In no case is an absolute proof or certainty sustainable, only a deduction based on probability and sentiment. Within everyday life, faith is sufficient because it is efficacious. That is, “It works for me.”

We push content into faith based on our socialization, acculturation, and personal affinities. Why does a person hold a particular religious faith but for the circumstances of culture and socialization, even when the content of that faith changes? Where a person was born, in what period, to what upbringing — all are not only contributing factors but for many are exclusive and insulated. What happens later in life only shapes the individual’s attitude to the content, always tending towards social harmony and practical efficacy. In turn, the loop feeds the regularly demonstrated efficacy of their adopted point of view, confirmed by an attained equanimity that all of us seek and which we may call a philosophy of life.

The balance or tendency we naturally have toward efficacy is our reconciliation of consciousness and the world around us. We long for what the philosopher Santayana called “animal faith,” that stolid and unconscious view that projects equanimity with regards to what we feel as humans: fear, suffering, death. As human beings, we want to assert what is unique to our consciousness, what amounts to “human faith”: creativity, imagination, transcendence.

Somewhere between the non-articulated consciousness of animals and the strivings for triumph beyond the limits of human nature, is faith. Faith is the desire to achieve this balance, or, perhaps, the insistence that it can be done. Sometimes in modesty we assert that at least the breakthrough balance can be achieved by great souls, such as mystics, but not ourselves. Sometimes the great souls themselves, lurching and striving to achieve the heights, assert that at least it can be achieved in glimpses (looking up from the fallen state of dryness experienced by a John of the Cross). And sometimes, being neither self-deprecating nor self-aggrandizing, we can see clearly that both the humility of the small soul is unnecessary, and the strivings of the great soul are contrived and unnatural.

Faith is a form of authenticity, what existentialists consider a self-realization that is trusted by and invested in by the individual. “Bad faith,” as Sartre calls it, is when we renounce that potential to shape our values and instead succumb to culture and society around us, succumb to what Heidegger calls the “they-selves,” and what Gabriel Marcel calls the renouncing of personhood. To have faith, then, in this sense, is to integrate the self and then to be conscious of the effort to integrate.

Faith in the sense of authenticity does not make reference to the content of faith. Faith is not only usually identified with religion but especially with a religious creed or a set of beliefs. But what we need to look at is not a set of beliefs but the very act of having faith, the act of believing or thinking or reasoning.

These acts involve the core of what it is be human. The content that follows is largely based on culture and society. Authenticity in one or another person must have a continuity of value, a quality that is separate from and transcends culture, society, or even the set of beliefs. Otherwise, faith is merely a description of someone’s beliefs, and pits one faith against another, one person against another person.

The tension between authentic faith and what is derived thoughtlessly from culture and society is both humanity’s opportunity and curse. If we can focus on core human consciousness or potential, then we can see human expressions as universal. We can begin to find what is the core of any possible authenticity in faith. Thus the Dalai Lama will express to visitors that he does not say to them to become Buddhists but rather to become compassionate. Compassion as a human efficacy both precedes and transcends any particular culture, society or religion. Humanity’s opportunity resides here, in this search for fundamental authenticity.

But the curse is in the residue of our non-conscious behavior. Not non-consciousness as in the animal faith of Santayana, which can be seen as a pure existence in the moment, a state or faculty which humans seldom achieve. Rather, the residue is in the apparently involuntary tendency to grasp power, to desire, to have greed. All of these are topmost in our social and individual behavior, and consume our lives as worldly beings.

We may call this a curse without knowing where it comes from, like the Fall or some divine punishment, or some mistake of evolution accelerated and not smoothed out by time. However we choose to see this “curse,” we are bound to pursue alternative paths, which we will call faith because we need an efficaciousness to overcome the failings and vices. We need a system of values and virtues to make ourselves authentic, to make of ourselves individuals who are doing exactly what makes them content.

And this contentment is itself the beginning of faith.

Faith is a process of self-discovery that involves various faculties such as intellectual, imagination, will, but also a renunciation of input that has preempted the process, namely accretions of society and culture and upbringing. In solitude and silence we create the conditions for such a process, and ensure that the process with be authentic.

Ewald’s sunny little room

“Stories of God” is an early collection by Rilke (he was 23 when he wrote it) inspired by a journey to Russia and the religious sentiment and folk literature he encountered there. Rilke later called these stories “youthful fantasies,” in part because they were somewhat imitative, if not naive in the primitive sense — Tolstoy’s folk tales come to mind — but chiefly because he could no longer cling to the childlike faith they project.

In one of the stories, “The Song of Justice,” Rilke describes a favorite character named Ewald, a disabled man who sits at the veranda of his house all day, watching the passing scene and waiting for the narrator to come by and stop and share a story. Ewald ably compensates for his physical handicap with his simple insight, as when he is speaking with the narrator about how he does not get around much physically.

It is a long passage but full of a wistful sentimentality that affects many who were once religious, versus the harder edge of practitioners. The important theme here, however, is solitude — a room of one’s own, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase — which was to become one of Rilke’s thematic passions, even when he left these stories behind.

“Yes,” said Ewald with a strange smile, “I can’t even go to meet Death. Many people run into him when they are out going places. But he is afraid to enter their houses and draws them out into alien territory, away to a war, to a precipitous tower, to a wobbly bridge, out into the wilderness, or into insanity. Most people pick him up, at least outside somewhere, and then carry him home on their shoulders without realizing it. For Death is sluggish and lazy; if people were not eventually prodding at him, who knows, he might fall asleep.”

The ailing man thought a while about this and then continued with a certain pride, “But in my case, Death will have to come to me. Here, to my sunny little room, where flowers last so long, over this old carpet, past this cabinet, between the table and the end of the bed (it isn’t that easy to get by), all the way here, to my dear old roomy chair, which will probably die along with me, since it has, in a manner of speaking, lived with me. And he will have to do all that in a normal, accepted manner, without making a fuss, without knocking anything over, without doing anything out of the ordinary, just like anyone paying a visit. This makes me feel oddly close to my room. Everything will play out here, on this narrow stage, and for that reason even this final incident will not be very different from all the others that have taken place here and will in the future.”

Theophilus the hapless

Not all who are mentioned in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are hermits. Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, plays the foil of torpid authority against eremitic sagacity and understatement. This is one of the subtler senses of humor the compiler(s) offer for those who have eyes.

Here are a few encounters with Theophilus.

Theophilus meets Arsenius, the archetype desert hermit, saying he would like a word of wisdom from him. After a short silence, Arsenius asks Theophilus if he will do what he advises. Theophilus says yes. Well then, replies Arsenius, “if you ever hear that Arsenius is anywhere, don’t go there.”

On another occasion, Theophilus had sent a messenger ahead to ask if Arsenius would receive him. Arsenius tells the messenger that if Theophilus insists on coming, then he must receive him, but if he receives Theophilus he will have to receive everyone and thus not be able to live anymore where he lives. The messenger goes back and relates this to Theophilus, who concludes that if that is the case he will not go and see Arsenius.

The above example is not a duplicate of the first anecdote. Here the point additional to hermit solitude is the subtle equation of the archbishop and just “anyone.” This is perhaps lost on Theophilus. It is characteristic of the hermit’s attitude toward authority, or at any rate the assumption that hermits need to be patronized.

By this time, then, Theophilus has come to an understanding about Arsenius, for when a wealthy widow comes from Rome expressly to visit Arsenius and receive his blessing, she is rebuffed and comes tearfully to Theophilus to commiserate. Arsenius had sent her away and told her not to prattle about her visit in Rome and thus turn the sea into a thoroughfare of visitors to him. Worse, the widow asked Arsenius to remember her and he said, on the contrary, that he would try to forget her. Theophilus comforts the widow by saying that Arsenius meant forgetting her physical presence and temptation but that he would pray for her soul. While this assuaged the widow, Theophilus must have realized what a dilemma Arsenius represented for a church intent on cultivating the pious, especially pious and wealthy widows.

Theophilus might have been exasperated by hermits but he did not get along with monks either, suspecting them of Origenism, a heresy identified with the spiritually-minded of the day. Perhaps it is the archbishop’s rectitude or pompous air or indiscretion, but when he visited a desert abbot and asked him what was the best life to follow (the abbot’s or the bishop’s, perhaps?) the answer was quick: to accuse oneself always, to constantly reproach oneself.

On another occasion, Theophilus comes to Scetis, the famous monastery. The abbot tells one elder to say something edifying to his excellency (perhaps winking, or perhaps not needing to). The old man replies: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

Finally, there is the time Theophilus invites several abbots and monks to his quarters in Alexandria. They are having a fancy meal, apparently, and the archbishop remarks about how fine is a cut of meat, offering it to one old man. The old man stops. “To this moment,” he says, “we believed that we were eating vegetables. If this is meat, we will not eat it.” One can imagine the abrupt end of the meal and probably the visit, hapless Theophilus blurting out some words as he trails behind his departing visitors or, perhaps, just left speechless for once.

Private property

The concept of private property has a paradoxical career. On the one hand it is held sacrosanct in developed economies as well as primitive autocracies. In the former, private property has been presented as a safeguard to privacy and autonomy, reserving space for self-sufficiency and solitude. In the former, private property has commodified natural and human-made things, making them objects for the taking based on power and privilege. These two threads have merged in the modern world.

Early modern England provides an excellent example of the evolution of the concept and practice of private property. But, furthermore, the impact of private property on the hermit in this history is important because it demonstrates what will or can happen to not only solitaries but anyone.

Two significant movements toward private property occurred in early modern England: 1) the dissolution of the monasteries, and 2) the enclosure movement.

The dissolution of monasteries and appropriation of church lands was an aggrandizement of elite power, not an extension of religious reform or an economic opportunity for the mass of society. The appropriation of monastic and church lands increased the power of the monarchy and its supporting elites, the nobility.

The later enclosure movement designated great tracts of public lands such as forests and grazing meadows into private lands owned, again, by friends of the monarchy and its supporting elites. The new theory of private property provided the rationale.

What was the consequence for hermits? Secular hermits such as forest-dwellers or shepherds using common lands became trespassers. Religious hermits and anchorites were literally turned out of their monasteries and anchorholds. Both were forced to find a way of purchasing what society once granted on the basis of usufruct or of religion.

The Roman legal concept of usufruct meant that the state protected access and use of public property until it deemed the property needed for another purpose. If grazing land or church land was better suited to serve as agricultural land for the community, this was understood to be the privilege of power, which had a kind of moral limitation. At least this is how usufruct functioned in an ideal sense. Rapacious elites of society always found ways of appropriating the lands and houses of orphans and widows, so to speak, but this was understood to be criminal, not a new theory of economics, as was private property.

Thus, privatization did not reassign purpose but dissolved the usufruct status and relationship. It made nature and resources beyond the means of use for any without power or money. But, moreover, it did not even have to do with use. The key to private property is ownership, not use. Certainly the hermit had neither power or money, but is the paragon of mindful use.

We have reached a near-terminus with the possibilities of privatization today. No wonder that there are so few wilderness hermits when there is so little wilderness, when wilderness has been commodified and placed beyond the reach of solitaries seeking solitude in that most natural of places.

But it is not only that natural things like trees and mountains have become private property to the elimination of hermits. It is that these natural things, and now including water and clean air and soil, have been or soon will be eliminated altogether, because society (whether powerful elites or consumption-minded masses) will have consumed them altogether.

Leonardo on art and solitude

Art, especially painting, is often the product of imitation, but usually of predecessors and works held in high esteem by cultural authorities. But at critical periods of history, as the monotony of imitation stagnates creativity, a breakthrough occurs.

Not that anything can be other than human imagination and the technology of the time, but the source of inspiration and imitation makes all the difference.

The lives of all artists tend to show the necessity of solitude, but solitude without insight has little value.

Leonardo da Vinci points out in his Notebook how “from age to age the art of painting continually declines and deteriorates when painters have no other standard than work already done.”

Leonardo’s breakthrough painter is Giotto. Giotto, writes Leonardo, was “reared in mountain solitudes, inhabited only by goats and such.” Unlike his predecessors, Giotto’s solitude in nature showed him that he should begin drawing what he actually saw, specifically landscapes and “all the animals which were to be found in the country,” as opposed to merely imitating his predecessors.

Leonardo’s conclusion is relevant to art and to life:

Mark the supreme folly of those who censure such as learn from nature, leaving uncensored the authorities who were themselves the disciples of this very same nature!

Eremitism as a creative force in human imagination must necessarily imitate its authorities and predecessors. But eremitism uses solitude as the core of manifested imagination and not merely out of necessity. Thus eremitism is a form of art or craft that seeks a balance between human sensibility and nature.