Solitary Life

For the Solitary, Prayer Is Action

This very old vocation [of a solitary or hermit] in the church has interested me over the years and, as it is a growing phenomenon today, particularly among women, I thought some further enlightenment on the subject might be of interest.

The Book of Occasional Services contains a rite (p. 228) entitled "Setting Apart for a Special Vocation." One of the rubrics states: "Individual Christians, in response to God's call, may wish to commit themselves to the religious life under vows made directly to the bishop of the diocese."

It is pursuant to this rite, which is based in canon, that in the last few years at least four other women in the Episcopal Church have made such vows and have been dedicated to the solitary life -- two as anchoresses, one as a hermitess and one as a solitary without further definition. Each has a unique rule worked out in consultation with her bishop, spiritual director and, where the solitary ministry is tied to a church, its rector.

One rector, whose church in consultation with its bishop entered into such a relationship with one of its parishioners, in announcing to his parish this very old, but now very new vocation of anchoress, said, "For most of us, the term is new and the vocation alien. We are conditioned to invest our time and energy in 'doing' things, as if a person's life can be summed up in what he/she accomplishes or has accomplished. The anchoress witnesses to a counter-cultural view -- that life is measured not by doing but by being; that the 'work' of prayer demands a discipline comparable to any other 'work'; that this 'work' of prayer is not one of life's extracurricular activities, done in spare time, but the very foundation of any other work the Christian may undertake; that prayer is action."

Martin Thornton, writing in his English Spirituality, finds the first "glorious flowering" of English spirituality arising out of the solitary life and spiritual direction in the 14th century. He went on to ask whether there is the possibility of some modern adaptation of this vocation.

Evelyn Underhill, in her classic, Mysticism, tells us that, primarily through this solitary life, mystical activity rose "to its highest point in the 14th century."

Perhaps Martin Thornton's vision of a new phase in English spirituality is coming into fruition in the wane of the 20th century through the same source that gave the impetus in the 14th century, the individual solitary and his or her spiritual guide, working it out together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Who knows? -- out of this may even come, in Evelyn Underhill's words, a new "wave of mystical activity" in the 21st century.

Our guest columnist is the Rev. Milo Coerper, a non-parochial priest who resides in Chevy Chase, Md.

Reprinted with permission from:

The Living Church

An independent weekly record of the news of the church and the views of Episcopalians since 1878

P. O. Box 92936
Milwaukee, WI 53202



History of Hermits and Anchorites

(Eremites, "inhabitants of a desert", from the Greek eremos), also called anchorites, were men [and women] who fled the society to dwell alone in retirement. Not all of them, however, sought so complete a solitude as to avoid absolutely any intercourse with others. Some took a companion with them, generally a disciple; others remained close to inhabited places, from which they procured their food. This kind of religious life preceded the community life of the cenobites. Elias is considered the precursor of the hermits in the Old Testament. St. John the Baptist lived like them in the desert. Christ, too, led this kind of life when he retired into the mountains. But the eremitic life proper really begins only in the time of the persecutions. The first known example is that of St. Paul, whose biography was written by St. Jerome. He began about the year 250. There were others in Egypt; St. Athanasius, who speaks of them in his life of St. Anthony, does not mention their names.

These first solitaries, few in number, selected this mode of living on their own initiative. It was St. Anthony who brought this kind of life into vogue at the beginning of the fourth century. After the persecutions the number of hermits increased greatly in Egypt, then in Palestine, then in the Sinaitic peninsula, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Asia Minor. Cenobitic communities sprang up among them, but did not become so important as to extinguish the eremitic life. They continued to flourish in the Egyptian deserts, not to speak of other localities. Discussions arose in Egypt as to the respective merits of the cenobitic and the eremitic style of life. Which was the better? Cassian, who voices the common opinion, believed that the cenobitic life offered more advantages and less inconveniences than the eremitic life. The Syrian hermits, in addition to their solitude, were accustomed to subject themselves to great bodily austerities. Some passed years on the top of a pillar (stylites); others condemned themselves to remain standing, in open air (stationaries); others shut themselves up in a cell so that they could not come out (recluses).

The eremitic life spread to the West in the fourth century, and flourished especially in the next two centuries, that is to say, till experience had shown by its results the advantages of the cenobitic organization.

Oftentimes those who helped most to spread the cenobitic ideal were originally solitaries themselves, for instance, St. Severinus of Norica and St. Benedict of Nursia. Monasteries frequently, though by no means always, sprang from the cell of a hermit, who drew a band of disciples around him. From the beginning of the seventh century, we meet with instances of monks who at intervals led an eremitic life. Some monasteries had isolated cells close by, where those religious who were judged capable of living in solitude might retire. Those who felt the want of solitude were advised to reside near an oratory or a monastic church. The councils and the monastic rules did not encourage those who were desirous of leading an eremitic life.

The widespread relaxation of monastic discipline drove St. Odo, the great apostle of reform in the sixth century, into the solitude of the forest. The religious fervour of the succeeding age produced many hermits. But to guard against the serious dangers of this kind of life, monastic institutes were founded that combined the advantages of solitude with the guidance of a superior and the protection of a rule. Thus, for example, we had the Carthusians and the Camaldolese at Vallombrosa and Monte Vergine. Nevertheless there still continued to be a large number of isolated hermits, and an attempt was made to form them into congregations having a fixed rule and a responsible superior. Italy especially was the home of these congregations at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Some drew up an entirely new rule for themselves; others adapted the Rule of St. Benedict to meet their wants; while others again preferred to base their rule on that of St. Augustine.

J. M. BESSE Transcribed by Janet Grayson
An excerpt taken from: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version Copyright 1996 by New Advent, Inc. (

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