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Saint Jerome, who lived as a hermit near Bethlehem, depicted in his study being visited by two angels (Cavarozzi, early-17th century)

A hermit, also known as an eremite (adjectival form: hermitic or eremitic) or solitary, is a person who lives in seclusion.[1][2][3] Eremitism plays a role in a variety of religions.

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  • Alan Watts on Hermits and Outcasts



In Christianity, the term was originally applied to a Christian who lives the eremitic life out of a religious conviction, namely the Desert Theology of the Old Testament (i.e., the 40 years wandering in the desert that was meant to bring about a change of heart).

In the Christian tradition the eremitic life[4] is an early form of monastic living that preceded the monastic life in the cenobium. In chapter 1, the Rule of St Benedict lists hermits among four kinds of monks. In the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to hermits who are members of religious institutes, the Canon law (canon 603) recognizes also diocesan hermits under the direction of their bishop as members of the consecrated life. The same is true in many parts of the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, although in the canon law of the Episcopal Church they are referred to as "solitaries" rather than "hermits".

Often, both in religious and secular literature, the term "hermit" is used loosely for any Christian living a secluded prayer-focused life, and sometimes interchangeably with anchorite/anchoress, recluse, and "solitary". Other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (Sufism), and Taoism, afford examples of hermits in the form of adherents living an ascetic way of life.

In modern colloquial usage, "hermit" denotes anyone living apart from the rest of society, or having entirely or in part withdrawn from society, for any reason.


The word hermit comes from the Latin ĕrēmīta,[5] the latinisation of the Greek ἐρημίτης (erēmitēs), "of the desert",[6] which in turn comes from ἔρημος (erēmos),[7] signifying "desert", "uninhabited", hence "desert-dweller"; adjective: "eremitic".



Eremitic cave in Spain

In the common Christian tradition the first known Christian hermit in Egypt was Paul of Thebes (fl. 3rd century), hence also called "St. Paul the first hermit". Antony of Egypt (fl. 4th century), often referred to as "Antony the Great", is perhaps the most renowned of all the early Christian hermits owing to the biography by Athanasius of Alexandria. An antecedent for Egyptian eremiticism may have been the Syrian solitary or "son of the covenant" (Aramaic bar qəyāmā) who undertook special disciplines as a Christian.[8]

Christian hermits in the past have often lived in isolated cells or hermitages, whether a natural cave or a constructed dwelling, situated in the desert or the forest. People sometimes sought them out for spiritual advice and counsel. Some eventually acquired so many disciples that they no longer enjoyed physical solitude.[citation needed] Some early Christian Desert Fathers wove baskets to exchange for bread.

In medieval times, hermits were also found within or near cities where they might earn a living as gate keepers or ferrymen. In the 10th century, a rule for hermits living in a monastic community was written by Grimlaicus. In the 11th century, the life of the hermit gained recognition as a legitimate independent pathway to salvation. Many hermits in that century and the next came to be regarded as saints.[9] From the Middle Ages and down to modern times, eremitic monasticism has also been practiced within the context of religious institutes in the Christian West.

In the Catholic Church, the Carthusians and Camaldolese arrange their monasteries as clusters of hermitages where the monks live most of their day and most of their lives in solitary prayer and work, gathering only briefly for communal prayer and only occasionally for community meals and recreation. The Cistercian, Trappist, and Carmelite orders, which are essentially communal in nature, allow members who feel a calling to the eremitic life, after years living in the cenobium or community of the monastery, to move to a cell suitable as a hermitage on monastery grounds. There have also been many hermits who chose that vocation as an alternative to other forms of monastic life.


The term "anchorite" (from the Greek ἀναχωρέω anachōreō, signifying "to withdraw", "to depart into the country outside the circumvallate city") is often used as a synonym for hermit, not only in the earliest written sources but throughout the centuries.[10] Yet the anchoritic life, while similar to the eremitic life, can also be distinct from it. Anchorites lived the religious life in the solitude of an "anchorhold" (or "anchorage"), usually a small hut or "cell", typically built against a church.[11] The door of an anchorage tended to be bricked up in a special ceremony conducted by the local bishop after the anchorite had moved in. Medieval churches survive that have a tiny window ("squint") built into the shared wall near the sanctuary to allow the anchorite to participate in the liturgy by listening to the service and to receive Holy Communion. Another window looked out into the street or cemetery, enabling charitable neighbors to deliver food and other necessities. Clients seeking the anchorite's advice might also use this window to consult them.[12]

Contemporary Christian life


Catholics who wish to live in eremitic monasticism may live that vocation as a hermit:

  • in an eremitic order, for example Carthusian or Camaldolese (in the latter one affiliate oblates may also live as hermits)
  • as a diocesan hermit under the canonical direction of their bishop (canon 603, see below)

There are also lay people who informally follow an eremitic lifestyle and live mostly as solitaries.[13] Not all the Catholic lay members that feel that it is their vocation to dedicate themselves to God in a prayerful solitary life perceive it as a vocation to some form of consecrated life. An example of this is life as a Poustinik, an Eastern Catholic expression of eremitic living that is finding adherents also in the West.

Eremitic members of religious institutes

Church of the hermitage "Our Lady of the Enclosed Garden" in Warfhuizen, Netherlands

In the Catholic Church, the institutes of consecrated life have their own regulations concerning those of their members who feel called by God to move from the life in community to the eremitic life, and have the permission of their religious superior to do so. The Code of Canon Law contains no special provisions for them. They technically remain a member of their institute of consecrated life and thus under obedience to their religious superior.

The Carthusian and Camaldolese orders of monks and nuns preserve their original way of life as essentially eremitic within a cenobitical context, that is, the monasteries of these orders are in fact clusters of individual hermitages where monks and nuns spend their days alone with relatively short periods of prayer in common.

Other orders that are essentially cenobitical, notably the Trappists, maintain a tradition under which individual monks or nuns who have reached a certain level of maturity within the community may pursue a hermit lifestyle on monastery grounds under the supervision of the abbot or abbess. Thomas Merton was among the Trappists who undertook this way of life.

Diocesan hermits

The earliest form of Christian eremitic or anchoritic living preceded that of being a member of a religious institute, since monastic communities and religious institutes are later developments of the monastic life. Bearing in mind that the meaning of the eremitic vocation is the Desert Theology of the Old Testament, it may be said that the desert of the urban hermit is that of their heart, purged through kenosis to be the dwelling place of God alone.

So as to provide for men and women who feel a vocation to the eremitic or anchoritic life without being or becoming a member of an institute of consecrated life, but desire its recognition by the Roman Catholic Church as a form of consecrated life nonetheless, the 1983 Code of Canon Law legislates in the Section on Consecrated Life (canon 603) as follows:

§1 Besides institutes of consecrated life the church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.
§2 A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.

Canon 603 §2 lays down the requirements for diocesan hermits.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 11 October 1992 (§§918–921), comments on the eremitic life as follows:

From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. These the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved.


Hermits devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance. (Footnote: CIC, can. 603 §1) They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One.

Catholic Church norms for the consecrated eremitic and anchoritic life do not include corporal works of mercy. Nevertheless, every hermit, like every Christian, is bound by the law of charity and therefore ought to respond generously, as his or her own circumstances permit, when faced with a specific need for corporal works of mercy. Hermits are also bound by the law of work. If they are not financially independent, they may engage in cottage industries or be employed part-time in jobs that respect the call for them to live in solitude and silence with extremely limited or no contact with other persons. Such outside jobs may not keep them from observing their obligations of the eremitic vocation of stricter separation from the world and the silence of solitude in accordance with canon 603, under which they have made their vow. Although canon 603 makes no provision for associations of hermits, these do exist (for example the Hermits of Bethlehem in Chester, NJ, and the Hermits of Saint Bruno in the United States; see also lavra, skete).[14]


Many of the recognised religious communities and orders in the Anglican Communion make provision for certain members to live as hermits, more commonly referred to as solitaries. One Church of England community, the Society of St. John the Evangelist, now has only solitaries in its British congregation.[15] Anglicanism also makes provision for men and women who seek to live a single consecrated life, after taking vows before their local bishop; many who do so live as solitaries.[16] The Handbook of Religious Life, published by the Advisory Council of Relations between Bishops and Religious Communities, contains an appendix governing the selection, consecration, and management of solitaries living outside recognised religious communities.[17]

In the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church (United States), those who make application to their diocesan bishop and who persevere in whatever preparatory program the bishop requires, take vows that include lifelong celibacy. They are referred to as solitaries rather than hermits. Each selects a bishop other than their diocesan as an additional spiritual resource and, if necessary, an intermediary. At the start of the twenty-first century, the Church of England reported a notable increase in the number of applications from people seeking to live the single consecrated life as Anglican hermits or solitaries.[18] A religious community known as the Solitaries of DeKoven, who make Anglican prayer beads and Pater Noster cords to support themselves, are an example of an Anglican hermitage.[19]

St. Seraphim of Sarov sharing his meal with a bear

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Orthodox Church and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, hermits live a life of prayer as well as service to their community in the traditional Eastern Christian manner of the poustinik. The poustinik is a hermit available to all in need and at all times. In the Eastern Christian churches, one traditional variation of the Christian eremitic life is the semi-eremitic life in a lavra or skete, exemplified historically in Scetes, a place in the Egyptian desert, and continued in various sketes today, including several regions on Mount Athos.

Notable Christian hermits

Early and Medieval Church

Modern times

Members of religious orders:

Diocesan hermits according to canon 603:

  • Sr Scholastica Egan, writer on the eremitic vocation
  • Sr Laurel M O'Neal, Er Dio, spiritual director, writer on eremitic life
  • Hermits of Bethlehem, Chester, NJ (modern lavra)
  • Fr Martin Suhartono, Er Dio, formerly Jesuit



Other religions

Two Sadhus, Hindu hermits

From a religious point of view, the solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces worldly concerns and pleasures. This can be done for many reasons, including: to come closer to the deity or deities they worship or revere, to devote one's energies to self-liberation from saṃsāra, etc. This practice appears also in ancient Śramaṇa traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Kejawèn, and Sufism. Taoism also has a long history of ascetic and eremitic figures. In the ascetic eremitic life, the hermit seeks solitude for meditation, contemplation, prayer, self-awareness, and personal development on physical and mental levels, without the distractions of contact with human society, sex, or the need to maintain socially acceptable standards of cleanliness, dress, or communication. The ascetic discipline can also include a simplified diet and/or manual labor as a means of support.

Notable hermits in other religions

Hsu Yun, a renowned Chan Buddhist hermit

In literature

In Orlando Furioso, Angelica meets a hermit
  • In medieval romances, the knight-errant frequently encounters hermits on his quest. Such a figure, generally a wise old man, would advise him. Knights searching for the Holy Grail, in particular, learn from a hermit the errors they must repent for, and the significance of their encounters, dreams, and visions.[29] Evil wizards would sometimes pose as hermits, to explain their presence in the wilds, and to lure heroes into a false sense of security. In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, both occurred: the knight on a quest met a good hermit, and the sorcerer Archimago took on such a pose.[30] These hermits are sometimes also vegetarians for ascetic reasons, as suggested in a passage from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: "Then departed Gawain and Ector as heavy (sad) as they might for their misadventure (mishap), and so rode till that they came to the rough mountain, and there they tied their horses and went on foot to the hermitage. And when they were (had) come up, they saw a poor house, and beside the chapel a little courtelage (courtyard), where Nacien the hermit gathered worts (vegetables), as he had tasted none other meat (food) of a great while."[31] The practice of vegetarianism may have also existed amongst actual medieval hermits outside of literature.
  • Hermits appear in a few of the stories of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron. One of the most famous stories, the tenth story of the third day, involves the seduction of a young girl by a hermit in the desert near Gafsa; it was judged to be so obscene that it was not translated into English until the 20th century.
  • The Three Hermits is a famous short story by Russian author Leo Tolstoy written in 1885 and first published in 1886, with its shock ending, featured the 3 hermits as the titular characters. The main character of Tolstoy's short story "Father Sergius" is a Russian nobleman who turns to a solitary religious life and becomes a hermit after he learns that his fiancée was a discarded mistress of the czar.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, in his influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, created the character of the hermit Zarathustra (named after the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathushtra), who emerges from seclusion to extol his philosophy to the rest of humanity.

In media

See also



  1. ^ "hermit definition - Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  2. ^ "hermit Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  3. ^ "hermit - meaning of hermit in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English - LDOCE". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  4. ^ Marina Miladinov, Margins of Solitude: Eremitism in Central Europe between East and West (Zaghreb: Leykam International, 2008)
  5. ^ eremita, Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, on Perseus project
  6. ^ ἐρημίτης, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  7. ^ ἔρημος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus project
  8. ^ "The Origins and Motivations of Monasticism". 3 October 2002. Archived from the original on 2002-10-03. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  9. ^ Tom Licence, Hermits and Recluses in English Society 950–1200, (Oxford, 2011), p. 36.
  10. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. "A person who has withdrawn or secluded themself from the world; usually one who has done so for religious reasons, a recluse, a hermit."
  11. ^ McAvoy, LA., Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2010, p. 2.
  12. ^ Dyas, E., Edden, V. and Ellis, R., Approaching Medieval English Anchoritic and Mystical Texts, DS Brewer, 2005, pp. 10–12.
  13. ^ Dubay, T., And You Are Christ's: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life, Ignatius Press, 1987, Ch. 9.
  14. ^ See for instance Bamberg Anne, Ermite reconnu par l’Église. Le c. 603 du code de droit canonique et la haute responsabilité de l’évêque diocésain, in Vie consacrée, 74, 2002, p. 104–118 and Entre théologie et droit canonique : l’ermite catholique face à l’obéissance, in Nouvelle revue théologique, 125, 2003, p. 429–439 or Eremiten und geweihtes Leben. Zur kanonischen Typologie, in Geist und Leben, 78, 2005, p. 313–318.
  15. ^ "Society of St John the Evangelist". Fellowship of St John Trust Association. Archived from the original on 7 June 2019. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  16. ^ "Solitaries who are not members of a Religious community". Single Consecrated Life. Archived from the original on 1 August 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  17. ^ Advisory Council of Relations between Bishops and Religious Communities (2004). Handbook of Religious Life (Fifth (revised) ed.). London: Canterbury Press (published 2012). p. 194. ISBN 9781853116186.
  18. ^ "Britain's growing band of religious hermits". The Guardian. 8 January 2001. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  19. ^ Winston, Kimberly (2008). Bead One, Pray Too. Church Publishing. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-8192-2276-3.
  20. ^ "Saint Paul of Thebes - Christian hermit". Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  21. ^ Villar, Ruairidh (17 April 2012). "Japanese island man lives as naked hermit". Reuters. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  22. ^ Uchida, Yuka (30 December 2014). Japan's Naked Island Hermit. Vice Magazine. Retrieved 9 January 2015.
  23. ^ Kinney, Anne Behnke (1990). The Art of the Han Essay: Wang Fu's Ch'ien-fu Lun. Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University. ISBN 978-0-939252-23-7.
  24. ^ "Ft. Leavenworth Series – the Six Secret Teachings of Jiang Ziya". YouTube.
  25. ^ Confucius (2014-07-31). The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu). Penguin UK. ISBN 978-0-14-197040-0.
  26. ^ Mencius (2004-10-28). Mencius. Penguin UK. ISBN 978-0-14-190268-5.
  27. ^ Wright, Edmund, ed. (2006). The Desk Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0-7394-7809-7.
  28. ^ Fong, Grace S. (2008). Herself an author: gender, agency, and writing in late Imperial China. University of Hawaii Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-8248-3186-8.
  29. ^ Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, pp. 179–81, ISBN 0-8014-8000-0
  30. ^ Lewis, C. S., Spenser's Images of Life, p. 87, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967
  31. ^ Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur 16.3
  32. ^ Phuong Le, "The Hermit of Treig review – a tender portrayal of a gentle Highlands recluse". The Guardian, 21 March 2022.

General and cited sources

Further reading

  • Jones, E. A. Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200-1550 (Manchester University Press, 2019)
  • Jotischky, Andrew. A Hermit's Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages (Continuum, 2011)
  • Jotischky, Andrew. The Perfection of Solitude: Hermits and Monks in the Crusader States (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995)
  • Leyser, Henrietta. Hermits and the New Monasticism: A Study of Religious Communities in Western Europe, 1000-1150 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1984)
  • Riehle, Wolfgang. The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England (Cornell University Press, 2014)

External links

This page was last edited on 19 June 2024, at 08:23
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