The etymology of the word “hermit” is suggestive for more than just linguistic interest. The Greek term eremos refers to desolate spaces, and the eremite is one who goes into that solitary expanse, usually thought of as a desert. And perhaps the desert image is an appropriate one in offering a physical landscape with little redeeming value compared to forest, valley, or mountain (let alone city); the desert image also describes the psychology of a soul bereft of comfort from the world — the situation of the solitary in his or her first ventures into solitude.
Eremitism savors the paradoxical and contrary, as opposed to contradictory. Eremos is desolate in the physical sense, poor and simple in aesthetics versus the rich complexities of the city or palaces of the world. Yet desolation is what characterizes the grand places in their spiritual sterility. So “desolate” places takes on two meanings. The hermit reaches out across the centuries to other like-minded sages, never alone, never “desolate.” Never as alone and “desolate” as the soulless who inhabit the palaces and splendid places.
In physical eremos, solitude is the telling characteristic about the person, without reference to intellectual or psychological content of that one who enters it. In early Christianity (nor later), the hermit was not a consecrated religious; the content of his or her calling was not regulated. The hermit did not have to conform to institutional standards. What, after all, could be expected of the hermit who enters desolate space?
The ancient hermit was not only not consecrated, but not even authorized, to enter eremos. The hermit was not living a sanctioned office, nor even living a socially acceptable life by the standards of his contemporaries, for Christianity emphasizes duty and social service.
Rather, the hermit is a rebel, but not a revolutionary. The hermit does not intend to overturn institutions but to check them and assert contrary values. The hermit expresses dissatisfaction with both secular and religious contemporaries, with their practices and pretenses. This rebellion may be expressed, at first, involuntarily, circumstantial, accidental. For example, in St. Jerome’s little portrait of Paul, the supposedly first Christian hermit, Paul hardly set out to be a hermit. He was simply fleeing a wave of persecution in his city and was betrayed by his brother-in-law as a Christian.
His brother-in-law conceived the thought of betraying the youth whom he was bound to conceal. Neither a wife’s tears which so often prevail, nor the ties of blood, nor the all-seeing eye of God above him could turn the traitor from his wickedness. He came, he was urgent, he acted with cruelty while seeming only to press the claims of affection. The young man had the tact to understand this, and, conforming his will to the necessity, fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution.
Paul fled for a practical reason, involuntarily. But we may extrapolate the situation of historical hermits who reclused themselves for political safety (as in ancient China) or as in Paul’s case. We can extrapolate from a precipitating cause to a reflecting upon what the continual danger of society, authority, and state represented to the individual’s values. Not the value of self-preservation only — though this may be the only motive initially, as in Paul’s case. All the historical hermits eventually reflect upon their situation and come to realize that flee they must, flee into eremos, into a place where the world does not follow because it does not extend its values and win back the hermit.
Jerome’s introduction has not the promise of eremitism but involuntary solitude — and mere eremos, desolate space. The desolation is in physical space and psychological alienation. But Jerome suspends the story of Paul for that of Anthony, who takes the readers’ place as one curious to see how someone can successfully be a hermit. And Jerome offers no details or how-to, only the wonderful dialog ensuing when Anthony finds Paul.
Paul lives in a cave, which he barricades against the sound of an intruder in the night. At the cave entry, Anthony beseeches Paul with pleas and tears. Paul opens at last, realizing that the pleas are genuine. He asks Anthony if he realizes that he has come here to die, so far from anything hospitable is this eremos. But likewise of himself, Paul says:
Behold the man whom you have sought with so much toil, his limbs decayed with age, his gray hairs unkempt. You see before you a man who before long will be dust.
Among historical hermits of Asia, for example, to enter a mountain or forest was to be as if dead, dead to the world. The Hindu forest dweller or forest hermit was not permitted to partake of foods or products from villages, things cultivated by the labor of other than self and nature. This was faith in the providence of nature or the divine to find means sufficient to life, life always teetering on the brink of extinction. The practices of historical hermits like eschewing common foods, warm clothing, conventional shelter, sleep, or the comfort of hearth and companionship, are like archetypes for “how-to.” These methods are crowned with the hermits’ own cultural method of meditation.
Jerome’s narrative then puts into Paul’s mouth what is emblematic eremitism:
Tell me therefore, I pray you, how fares the human race? Are new homes springing up in the ancient cities? What government directs the world? Are there still some remaining for the demons to carry away by their delusions?”
Every generation deems its own times worst, and only a successive generation can apply a material measurement to its predecessor’s claim. T.S. Eliot described a post-World War I world as a “wasteland,” and yet the decades since have seen only worsening material and social conditions. Surely a material measurement today is not a measure of how things are at present but a projection of how they may become in the future. With the collapse of globalization, the onset of global warming, the acceleration of peak energy, and the legacy of destructive technology, the possibilities project to a far worse future than present.
Yet the times are what any individual can make of them; they are whatever comes out of the heart of a person right here and now. The solitary knows that the world is going to be what it is going to be, and that is why the solitary has gone out of it, and lives as if it is the worst as it is now, and will be the worst as it is then.
“How fares the human race?” asks Paul rhetorically, and we of a later generation know that nothing has changed, that it fares the same — except, perhaps, a material increment, a sophistication of contrivance, a collectivized destruction of mind and heart by the idea of progress and clinging delusion over the centuries, all waiting to be “carried away,” as Paul puts it in his own vocabulary.
The solitary may not enter solitude voluntarily, but eventually the condition of solitude imparts a wisdom that no social group can. Solitude strips away the layers that separate us from the raw condition of being.
We may see the desert of eremitism as a desolation, but the historical hermit saw society and the world as the desolation.
Plainness of soul and aspiration are best reflected in eremos, in the places eschewed by the world for their lack of excitement and glamor. The sad destruction of the very physical places reveals the profound ignorance of the worldly. These places are destroyed because the busy people, the ambitious and worldly, never see beyond the veil that separates them from themselves. The veil remains, unwittingly, shielding them from the desolation that is within them, shielding them from the eremos of their very selves.