Hermits & Humanity
Evolutionary biology and Christianity agree on many things, the most notable being that humans are inherently social, with an inner drive to build relationships and communities in order to flourish. Given the imposed isolation experienced by many in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem counterintuitive to many of us that our group survival is enhanced by distancing ourselves from our loved ones during this time of crisis.
While science has much to say on the benefits of self-isolation in slowing the spread of infection, it is less certain about the impact of isolation on human flourishing. There is no tradition of studying the effects of isolation on whole populations within society. There simply has not been any opportunity for this sort of scientific work in the modern age. If anything, science has highlighted the ill effects of crowded cities, overworked personnel, hectic schedules, stress and the loss of a sense of meaning within populations of young adults or society more generally.
Someday, the current social distancing regime will be relaxed. It is a case of balancing the risks to life with people’s need to socialise, work and create economic opportunities. It is simply not possible for such decisions to be reduced to scientific measurement. We must look further than mathematical modelling if we want to navigate our way through this crisis.
In the meantime, it is worth exploring non-technical approaches that help us to live with less face-to-face contact. When it comes to the positive effects of isolation, religion has much to tell us. The word hermit comes from the Latin ĕrēmīta, which literally means ‘of the desert’. Early hermits often had to flee Christian persecution to survive alone in the wilderness.
Our understanding of a life of self-isolation is not restricted to Christian hermits. Other great traditions that valued isolation also gave rise to poets, artists, philosophers and mystics.
In many of the writings from hermits, the concept of loneliness is mysteriously absent. Mostly, they simply did not have time to be lonely. This may be a key to coping with the current social distancing and self-isolation that we must endure.
Hermits spent their days in nature or contemplating nature when not actually in nature. Very often, hermits enjoyed a profound empathy for all living things and for fellow humans. Being alone does not mean disliking people nor feeling in any way separate from creation. Loving our neighbours as ourselves is still possible even when we live apart.
Hermits also read sacred texts, meditated or frequently prayed as a pathway to gaining wisdom. They benefitted personally from practicing patience and fortitude. They knew how to go without material goods. In fact, many described experiencing transcendent states akin to heavenly bliss rather than prolonged periods of despair or loss.
In 1935, the English writer C.K. Chesterton published a famous essay on ‘The Case for Hermits’ in his collection entitled ‘The Well and the Shallows’. Chesterton noted that hermits are often considered savages by a society that regards being social as the norm. He also advised social-loving individuals apt to criticise saints to remember that the person in the desert often had a soul filled with human kindness.
A famous line by Chesterton well worth pondering during our own self-isolation admonishes us to think about forgiveness for ‘it is society that men quarrel with their friends; it is in solitude that they forgive them’.
In the Christian tradition, well-known hermits include St. Basil, St. John Chrysostum and St. Jerome. However, a solitary way of life is not limited to men. Mary of Egypt and St. Julian of Norwich also sought isolation. St. Julian of Norwich found comfort and consolation from her hermit existence. In her words: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.
A useful insight from the lives of the hermits is that they generally viewed their isolation as a gift rather than as a punishment. For hermits, spending time away from society was not a form of imprisonment, it was an opportunity for greater freedom.
It is clear that hermits have much to teach us and that our own self-isolation may be an opportunity to learn from some of their wisdom. As Jesus told his disciples: ‘You will come to know the truth and the truth will set you free.’