Eremitism takes the solitude and silence within and projects them into the living milieu around the self, into the physical environment. Each tradition of eremitism crafts this environment using different terms and images. The cell is a favorite of Westerners familiar with the monastery, further circumscribed by the anchorhold. The cave and the hut are favorite images East and West of physical autonomy, closer to nature than the cenobitic. The hermit within a crowd or city has both solitary and social images as environs, still focusing on the immediate mental and physical environs into which to retreat, to cultivate, and to practice. A few brave souls live directly under the sky, under the aegis of nature.
In all cases, the physical environs become a projection of the self’s solitude and silence. Although the physical environs exist independent of our mental purposes (the cave, mountain, forest, desert, and, more contrived, the cell or hut), they are embraced and transformed by the solitary’s application of mental and physical effort.
The qualitative characteristics of the environ of cell, cave, and hut, become important not merely as an atmospheric, as a field for Feng-shui, a vibrational region, or as mere decor. The transformation of the environs physically is not based on the practitioner’s eye for interior design. Rather, the environ comes to mirror the deeper self, and reflect an order, a sense of discipline, and the greater project of mental and spiritual work. Such an environ is the apex of simplicity, yet it can become complex in its interrelations of objects and setting. Everything in the room or space takes on symbolic importance, and anything out of place or not contributing to this trajectory of solitude and silence intrudes unnecessarily.
The solitary rightly safeguards the solitude of place as much as the solitude of self. Privacy and discretion are not vanities or psychological weaknesses but tools for fostering practice. While others see this safeguarding as extended to property, the solitary maintains no proprietary relationship to objects, less one of covetousness. Rather, the attitude is one of awareness and cultivation of a seamlessness of environment based on function, namely the function of sustaining solitude.
Thus when the Abba Aresenius was visited by a certain bishop Theophilus, the latter waited for some wise words frpm Arsenius, who remained silent. Finaly, Arsenius looked up and said to the bishop, “If I give you advice, will you take it to heart?” The bishop nodded. “Then,” said Arsenius, “whatever you hear of Arsenius again, don’t come here.” And another bishop once asked of Arsenius if the old man would open his door to receive him. “Yes,” said Arsenius,” but if I open to you I must open to all, and then I will have to move from this place.”
Then, too, is the story of the Abba Moses, a large black man. He was walking in the desert when a visitor from the city stopped him and asked, “Where does Abba Moses live?” Abba Moses looked at him pointedly and replied, “Why do you want to see that old fool?” So the visitor returned to the city and told others what had happened. The others asked the traveler what the man in the desert looked like. He was large and black. “That was Abba Moses,” they replied knowingy.
A similar anecdote concerns the Chinese Zen monk Da-mei, who entered the mountains fleeing the world. A certain monk was in those mountains searching for branches suitable for staffs. He lost his way and came upon Da-mei’s hut. They exchanged a few words and the monk returned to his monastery. He told the abbot of what transpired. The abbot wondered, having remembered a certain monk gone to the mountains years before. Perhaps it was the one he was thinking of. The abbot asked the monk to return to the mountain and invite the hermit-monk to visit. But Da-mei, receiving the envoy, left him with a poem which ends:
When worldly men discover where you live
You move your thatched hut further into the hills.
Notice how this discovery of the self by others, this involuntary disclosure to others, and, therefore, to the world, is not merely physical but involves many psychological nuances, instincts, even.
To conceal self is not to flee anything that is not already present itself. It is but to put in its place those desires of weakness: curiosity, vanity, sloth, self-aggrandizement. That which is precious is not to be exposed to corrosion or pollution. The hermit is proactive in being aware of harmful influences and avoiding them. In the tragic sense, it is the world itself. That which is precious, that must be safeguarded, is a treasure, the last and only one anyone can still have, namely solitude and practice.
The world misunderstands, insisting that the hermit must participate, share his talents, live a normal social existence, perhaps because it pleases the world that everyone conform to its pattern, however, futile and without purpose, that everyone be revealed, exposed, laid bare for inspection and control. And even those in the world who have an inkling of this perception of the solitary hesitate but intuitively appreciate the heroism of solitude. And these are our allies, our only friends. This point is nicely illustrated by a tale from Kahlil Gibran titled “Finding God.”
Two men were walking in the valley, and one man pointed with his finger toward the mountain side, and said, “See you that hermitage? There lives a man who has long divorced the world. He seeks but after God, and naught else upon this earth.”
And the other man said, “He shall not find God until he leaves his hermitage, and the aloneness of his hermitage, and returns to our world, to share our joy and pain, to dance with our dancers at the wedding feast, and to weep with those who weep around the coffins of our dead.”
And the other man was convinced in his heart, though in spite of his conviction he answered, “I agree with all that you say, yet I believe the hermit is a good man. And may it not well be that one good man by his absence does better than the seeming goodness of these many men?”