William of St. Thierry

In his Golden Letter, the medieval theologian Wiliam of St. Thierry reflects on an insight he had as a result of a several weeks’ stay at the Chartreuse of Mont-Dieu, a prominent monastery. William concluded that (quoting scholar Anneke Mulder-Bakker):

man’s one authentic desire is union with God [and] … the stages of man’s growth inevitably led him to greater and greater solitude, and that this solitude is most perfectly expressed in the vocation of the hermit.

This sentiment may seem to change the sequence of enlightenment. We are used to the psychological explanation for eremitism, based on personal propensity or sensitivity, with spiritual growth a welcome but not essential result of solitude. But in true medieval fashion, William makes God and the innate desire for God to be the basis of eremitism and the eremitic impulse. Openness to things spiritual becomes the impetus to solitude, not the result of it. Thus can be posited a “teleology of eremitism” — if that is not far-fetched.

Unfortunately, this kind view of hermits was not universally held in the Middle Ages, where many were viewed suspiciously because they did not follow a traditional vocation, either in the world or in the reliigous sense. But that has always seemed the original character of eremitism everywhere, to not conform to preconceptions of the hermit presented by those who, simply put, aren’t hermits or empathize with eremitism as did William.

The anchorite was in higher favor because the anchorite was physically confined, which suggested a kind of intellectual and psychological control on the part of others. How true the authorities were on this count is also doubtful, however, for the fulfillment of the anchorite was not so much confinement by the world as renunciaition of its false freedom. Hence the unexpected but welcome support of a theologian like William.

There is an eccentric touch of medieval etymology where William relates the word cella (anchorhold or cell) to celium, meaning heaven.