Learn from medieval hermits who lived in isolation

Two sadhus, Hindu hermits (Luca Galuzzi)

A British art historian, Janina Ramirez, agreed that during the pandemic, someone should emulate Julian of Norwich, a nun who lived in the Middle Ages. Julian chose to be a hermit or one who isolated herself from social life and lived in seclusion.

Late last March, Ramirez, who is also the author of Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History, told a BBC journalist that the situation of Julian's life at that time was relevant to the current world. This is because most of Julian's life span took place in the middle of the plagues, one of the biggest was the Black Death.

Ramirez believes Julian's choice to isolate herself aimed for living peacefully in the midst of chaos and having a quality life. However, the thing to remember is that Ramirez did not isolate herself based on her free will. Late last month, she experienced a number of symptoms of illness that forced her to stay at home.

"It is a journey many of us will take, and I want to show positivity comes out the other side," said Ramirez. And one reference to positive things, according to Ramirez, is to write books during the isolation period, as did Julian.

In the pandemic times like now, the hermit's life story is seen as one of the ways that can help inspire someone to be calm. And at first, the practice of living as a hermit was commonly practiced by monks and nuns.

St. Jerome, who lived as a hermit near Bethlehem, depicted in his study being visited by two angels (Bartolomeo Cavarozzi)

Some accounts of the life stories of ascetics appeared in the Middle Ages. Julian of Norwich was one of the famous ascetics because she routinely wrote notes which were later recorded in 1670 and given the title Revelations of Divine Love, the first book written by an English nun.

It contained Julian's opinions and reflections on self and religious teachings, for example, about love as the main value in Catholicism. In that chapter, Julian wrote that every gift of God was done on the basis of eternal love.

In another chapter, she explained how her belief in God would make everything good. In her reflection, Julian heard the voice of God saying that she and all mankind would always be in His protection.

This book is a real trace left by Julian because there are no official records that describe the life story of the nun. The information of, not only Julian, a number of ascetics who lived in the Middle Ages or before, like Cuthbert, was difficult to find.

Cuthbert was a popular monk and ascetic in the seventh century. At that time, the area where he lived, Northumbria, was plagued, and he regularly visited the sufferers to help the healing process. Reportedly, Northumbrian residents felt a miracle after meeting Cuthbert. In addition, he also fed the hungry and prayed for people.

Location of St. Cuthbert's tomb and reburial in Durham Cathedral (John Hamilton)

In old age, Cuthbert decided to live as a hermit. He chose to stay in the cave and fill the days with prayer, so he could truly feel close to God. During this time, he continued to carry out his social role as a monk, such as receiving visits from people asking for blessings or advice.

Cuthbert's journey to becoming a hermit was not smooth. In his youth, he actually did a hermitage, but church officials asked Cuthbert to stop the activity and do the ministry. At that time, Cuthbert could not refuse the orders of church officials.

Soon, he was appointed Bishop of Northumbria. From there, his name became even more popular, especially because people heard the story that he cured not only the human disease but also animals.

The decision of Catholic monks or nuns to live as ascetics is not always easy. They must get approval from the regional diocese before they can live it.

That challenge was experienced by Richard Withers, a monk from Philadelphia. He told The New York Times that at that place, there were no monks who decided to be a hermit. He himself had been rejected by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia several times when he asked for permission to become a hermit. Church officials, at that time, in the late 1990s, objected to seeing the mission of being a monk not only to be close to God but also to serve others.

But the diocese was not fully authorized to reject Withers' decision because, in the early 1980s, the Holy See had issued a rule that acknowledged the existence of hermits in which individuals dedicated their entire lives to draw closer to God in solitude and prayer.

The papal throne in the apse of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran symbolizing the Holy See (Em)

Withers felt that being in the midst of the masses did not make him receive inner refreshment. Therefore, he was consistent with the desire to be a hermit. He stated that his daily activities were similar to those of monks in general. Only, he had more time to pray, did not lead mass, and did not involve in church activities. He also had to work to make ends meet, considering the church did not meet his daily needs.

A British nun, Rachel Denton, fulfills her daily needs by selling calligraphy online. She is active on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to trade and to interact with consumers. For Denton, being a hermit does not always mean being antisocial.

Denton told how she routinely attended weekly mass at church and received invitations from consumers at least twice a year. To The Guardian, she also said that she routinely contacted her family once a week while some friends often visited her at least once a month.

According to BBC, initially, Denton was a Carmelite nun that focused on living in solitude. However, she remained uncomfortable with communal living in the monastery. She then asked permission from the Bishop of Nottingham to leave the monastery and become a hermit.

The bishop did not allow it because he felt unfamiliar with the concept of hermits. Denton was only given permission to live as a hermit after she attended a special mass in 2006. There, she revealed the promise to live alone, simply, and quietly.

There are times when people who live as hermits attract many others. This happens to Dario Escobar, a monk who lives in Lebanon. According to National Geographic, a number of tourists visiting the country are interested in coming to Kadisha Valley, a region in Lebanon that is known to be quiet and home to several monasteries.

Monastery of Qozhaya in July 2003 (Yellaban)

These tourists are willing to go through difficult terrain to meet hermits who live there and hope to receive a blessing. They are not always lucky because hermits like Escobar only come out of their homes when they feel like meeting someone else.

Escobar told his daily activities were praying for 14 hours, working for three hours, studying for two hours, and sleeping for five hours. He only ate vegan food picked from the gardens around his residence.

In the past, there was also a hermit residence that was made a place of pilgrimage, namely the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites in Aleppo, Syria. Simeon was an ascetic who believed that he could be closer to God if he lived in a pillar. Therefore, he then formed a small platform at the top, more than 50 feet from the ground, and lived there for 37 years.

According to The Telegraph, Simeon stayed there to avoid people. The only person who routinely visited him was a village boy without a clear identity who often gave him food.

Now, the hermitage tradition is not only done by religious people who aim for contemplating and getting closer to the creator. The Guardian once noted people who lived as ascetics in several parts of America. It was explained that there were people who became hermits with the aim of hiding or as an escape.

In Japan, hermit life is a trend among young people who feel so pressured by heavy burdens. They chose to stay in the room for months or years.