There is an ancient tradition of faith, for Christians and others, of setting oneself apart to live in isolation for the express purpose of growing closer to God through self-denial, study, prayer, worship and charitable works. Monastic communities/orders are established with this as their purpose. Within that tradition are those who take the isolation one step further to being eremitic, that is, a hermit.
Not all hermits live in complete and total isolation from others, indeed that goes against the belief that God created us for relationship and community. Most hermits have as part of their day interaction with others, while it may be limited to worshiping with the church community (with the other members of the monastic community in which their cell resides).
The hermit life itself is a reflection of the Biblical account of the Hebrew people (see Exodus) wandering in the desert for 40 years as they made their escape from slavery under Pharaoh to living in the promised land of Canaan. This was a wilderness time of refinement, of learning to fully rely on the God they belonged to and to living in covenant community. God’s ways and expectations were revealed to Moses who then instructed the people, with great resistance on their part.
Hermits take this as a model for purging the self of selfish and worldly desires, learning focus only on God and service to God’s creation through acts of charity. It is an effort for one to become closer to God, in line with God’s will. Prayer, fasting, meditation, scripture reading and study, praise and worship are all expected. The hermit usually maintains some activity that contributes to his/her support and that of the community s/he is tied to: i.e. baking; crafting- stained glass, painting, pottery, simple jewelry; writing; musical composition; gardening; farming; leading retreats; etc.
As I was out for my daily walk yesterday, it occurred to me that, in my current circumstance, I feel a bit like a hermit. My cell is within my family home, my monastery. It is my community as I seem to have little interaction outside of the home. I pray, read my Bible and study a bit each day. I do a handcraft, knitting, though it isn’t bringing in any money! And my work is taking care of our home and our children, cooking, cleaning and the like.
What makes it wilderness is healing from illness, the pain of job loss, learning to forgive, and trying to discern what God has next for me in life, all in this context of relative isolation. I’ve been in the wilderness before. At times wilderness has been fallow time for letting the fields rest before starting a new crop. At other times it has been fraught with anxiety over life choices or circumstances beyond my control. In all times it has been seeking God’s direction, whether on my own or with the aid of a community of fellow believers.
In this wilderness, there are fewer people close at hand. And the people I once shared community with are not available to be the community they once were. Other people, who I consider part of my community, are hundreds, even thousands of miles away. There is a difference in being able to have a community of physical presence and touch. It is the way we hug and show each other love that I miss and need the most.
In this wilderness I am learning. I’m learning that while I enjoy spending time on my own and with God, I miss people. I miss working in a room full of people who all share the same purpose; where there are laughter and support and shared goals. I’m learning that I’m not as introverted as I might seem, that I really like working and that a structure to my day is good. I’m learning that being alone can be just as stressful as being in a noisy crowd. I’m learning that things, even beautiful things, don’t make for good friends and a house is more than a storage place for the necessities of life. And while God loves to have my undivided attention, so do my children and husband. And forgiveness definitely doesn’t happen all at once, but rather in bits and peaces.
Living in the wilderness, whether it be desert, forest, whitewater, mountain or vale, isn’t meant to be a permanent residence. It’s a place for learning valuable lessons that enable one to move on, forward into the great promises of a new landscape. The wilderness is the path from the old ways that have become oppressive to the new freedom of living into a calling.