Nick Mayhew-Smith is a research associate at the Susanna Wesley Foundation and the author of The Naked Hermit(2019). In this time of enforced isolation he provides a glimpse of the wisdom that the hermit life can offer.
Photo of a hermit’s chapel near Roche, Cornwall, taken by Nick Mayhew-Smith.
There has rarely been a better time to consider the life of a hermit. A forgotten discipline, to say the least, in the modern church yet one that has roots in the earliest days of Christianity. Jesus himself went straight into the desert for forty days immediately after his baptism, time away from human contact and civilisation in order to – well, to do what exactly? It is a question I have been studying in my recent work at the University of Roehampton, learning lessons from life in the desert. After all, if a hermit can keep himself or herself gainfully occupied and spiritually refreshed for years on end, perhaps there are lessons in there for all of us, especially now.
You don’t need much to be a hermit, that much is obvious. But context is important. All the early hermits deliberately went deep into the landscape, into the wilderness, an absence not just of human company and civilisation, but something positive too. The hermit life is a way of embracing the natural world. By going deep into nature the hermit reconnects with a primal sense of uncomplicated innocence. Dostoevsky argued that Jesus spent time in the wilderness in order to surround himself with sinless ones, with wild animals, before embarking on his mission to us rather more sinful humans. We all need time out of the fray, perhaps.
Nowadays this biblical impulse is framed purely in terms of a modern Christian retreat. But there is a flip side to that. It is also an embrace, something positive. I list all manner of hermit interactions with nature in my recent book The Naked Hermit.
Although the current lockdown puts remote travel out of reach, there are rituals that can be done with little more than a windowsill or local park. Feeding squirrels, listening to the sound of the trees, even preaching to the birds have precedent in Christian tradition.
Preaching to the birds was certainly a new experience for me when I first tried it two years ago, and as I stood on a beach strewn with washed up plastic, the intrusion of our human sin, I simply said the first thing that came into my head: ‘I’m so very sorry’.