"Our Lady had told him to come and live in a tent in my garden"
- An article by Sara Maitland in The Tablet magazine
Last week I had another email from someone looking for a hermitage. I do
not have an overwhelming number of such letters, but since I published A
Book of Silence in 2008, and especially since I have been writing this
column, I have received a small but steady trickle.
Some of these letters are from formally consecrated hermits, regulated since
1983 under canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law, which lays down that "a
hermit is recognised in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated
life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels
confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop
and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction".
Most of these have had a hermitage in the past and for one reason or another
are being forced to move. A few of them are from patent lunatics (including
the man who told me that Our Lady had told him that he had to come and live
in a tent in my garden, and that any reluctance on my part would lead
extremely soon to some rather explicit and nasty sexual torments in hell).
Some (probably most) are from "freelance" solitaries, like me, both those
who may eventually seek Consecration but need a hermitage first and those
who really do not feel called, for a range of reasons, to come under the
sheltering wing of official consecration.
It is not easy to find a hermitage. There are practical reasons for this–
there are surprisingly few houses in silent places suitable for a single
person; most solitaries want to be within reach of a regular Mass; and there
is often a crude economic problem – "hermitting" is not a good way to get
rich, but no one can live entirely outside the cash economy. I am privileged
in all sorts of ways and one of them is being able to make my living as a
writer – one of the few jobs that can be done alone and at home – and I know
I struggle continually to get the balance right.
But there are also psychological reasons why it is hard. There are the
heroic souls who can settle into a life of solitude and silent prayer in an
inner-city bedsit, but most of us seem to have a psychological or aesthetic
need for a particular sort of landscape or "soundscape", with individual
variations. I do not think we need feel ashamed of this "weakness", because
the account of Anthony the Great finding his Inner Mountain –his final
hermitage – makes it clear that when he saw it he "immediately recognised it
as his home" and lived the remainder of his life there with "joyful
Silence is highly nuanced: the sound archive at the BBC has more than 30
recordings of "silence" for producers to use in programmes – silence inside,
outside, by the sea, up a mountain, at night, on a hot day, in a deciduous
wood, underground – and they are all subtly different. And as for sound so
for light and space and views.
And while it will not do to be too picky, it also will not do not to pay
attention. Now here's the rub. Although I have been in contact with all
these hermitage seekers, I have never heard from any hermitage owners
looking for a resident. We have fewer priests and therefore presumably spare
"capacity"; we have smaller religious communities and therefore presumably
under-used spaces. I imagine we have rural Catholics with houses that could
be divided for downsizing without moving or ex-agricultural workers'
cottages, or …
What a perfect tenant a hermit would make: most unlikely to have riotous
parties, highly likely to be long-term and stable, and none of the effort
and worry involved in self-catering lets. There would be someone around 24/7
and, if you pick your hermit carefully, they may even look after your cat or
feed your chickens when you go away. You get gratitude and prayers and, if
it interests you, a certain eighteenth-century glamour plus a regular rent
(perhaps, if you can, just a bit below the market price).
The question is how can we get the two groups together? The eremitical life
does at the moment seem to be growing. It is never going to be enormous. But
I wonder if we need some sort of centralised register that both parties
could notify in the case of need; a sort of hermits' estate agent...