Alone, Not Lonely: On Modern Hermits

Hermits were not people often on my mind and hermitages had never occurred to me as a possible vacation destination. If you had asked me several months ago what I knew about hermits, I would have dipped into a limited trove of literary and cinematic examples, Boo Radley being the most prominent, and he’s really more of a shut-in.

But then came the Maine Hermit.

Last spring, Christopher Knight became a media sensation. According to news accounts, the 47-year-old man had walked into the Maine woods at the age of 19 and never come out. He told authorities he had never talked to anyone in those ensuing years, except to greet a passing hiker. He built himself a makeshift house that, at one point included a television, and staved off hunger by taking food and other sundries from nearby homes and a summer camp. Which is what he was doing when police apprehended him on April 4, 2013.

Neighbors were (understandably) distraught, but for the public, it was captivating. Who hasn’t fantasized about a life off the grid? A life without the usual obligations. Without instant messaging. It is the ultimate in rural idyll, the extreme version of buying a summer home upstate.

Which is why I was more than intrigued to find that there were hermits just a couple hours away from me in Sonoma, California, best known as an upscale wine destination. According to its website, Sky Farm Hermitage “provides an ideal setting for anyone seeking a retreat in silence and solitude in a simple and rustic environment.” It’s mantra? “Be Still. Be Silent. Be Watchful.” For just $85 a night, the life of a hermit could be mine. And so I did something that seemed supremely novel at the time, and emailed a hermit.

****

There are two kinds of hermits.

Well, actually, there are two major categories with lots of subcategories. There are the hermits who live like Knight, in some form or another. People who prefer to live alone and self-sufficiently. They are the subjects of documentaries, some of them write books.

Some call Henry David Thoreau one. And surely there are some we will never know about. From there you can spiral out. Some have described Japan’s hikikomori, young men and women who have withdrawn from society and live isolated in rooms, as hermits. And then there are spiritual hermits. Hermits who live secluded lives dedicated to introspection—contemplative silence. The existence of spiritual hermits has been recorded since ancient times, from Greece to Siberia to Thailand. Many say Lao Tse, the author of the “Tao Te Ching” lived as a hermit. Saint Paul of Thebes is often credited as being the first Christian hermit. Born in 230 near Egypt, he is said to have lived in a cave for 70 years. (Caves are a popular dwelling for hermits of yore, and occasionally, hermits of today.) There are Buddhist hermits and Hindu hermits. There are hermits who live alone, and hermits who live in close proximity to other hermits. Many hermits live mostly in silence, but they aren’t all cut off.

****

Dear Andrea,
Peace and blessings.
Happily there are some openings for June Weekends– 6/21-21 or 6/28-30 are both free right now.
Might either of these work for you?
Warmly,
Sr. Michaela

It took just little over a day for the hermit to write back.

Her name is Michaela; I didn’t know her last name (Terrio) until well into our relationship. We exchanged a few more emails and after I admitted I knew absolutely nothing about visiting a hermitage, she proposed a phone call. (Hermits have phones!). I was uncharacteristically nervous about the call. Would Michaela sniff me out for the un-spiritual fraud that I was? I have, after all, no religious affiliation. I rarely spend time alone. I once balanced my laptop on the toilet in case I needed to Gchat about work during a shower.

But Terrio didn’t seem to care. She didn’t ask me, in her quiet, calm voice, why I wanted to come to Sky Farm, and she certainly didn’t ask me what my religion was. She told me, among other things, that while I was there, I probably wouldn’t see other people, but that if I did, it was okay to say “hello” if it seemed like the other person was okay with it. We agreed that I would take a bus to the city center of Sonoma and she would pick me up in her car (hermits have cars!) and take me the rest of the way to the hermitage, and then we hung up.

****

Hermits have to deal with a lot of misconceptions. Like that they all live in caves, or that they hate people or that they don’t go to the grocery store.

To bust some common hermit myths, I turned to Karen Fredette, a woman who finds herself in the strange position of being a spokesperson for hermits.

Fredette grew up Catholic and joined a monastery when she was 17. She lived there for 30 years before moving to West Virginia to live as a hermit in a small cabin, which she did for six years. Then she met her husband, Paul at a nearby parish where she worked to earn a little money. “Even hermits have to eat,” says Fredette. “We both pursued our separate vocations for a while but then finally decided that God was calling us to marry.”

Fredette says she no longer considers herself a hermit now that she’s married.

The Fredettes run a website for hermits and “those attracted to solitude,” and a newsletter for hermits called “Raven’s Bread,” which is printed and mailed. The newsletter features hermits’ stories, a letter from the Fredettes, book and article suggestions, a bulletin board and even a one-panel comic starring a character called Wood B. Hermit.

Fredette has written books about the hermit life and has a YouTube series. The website receives 650 hits a day, the newsletter is sent out to about 1,200 people worldwide.

It is the use of technology that raises the most eyebrows when it comes to the modern hermit existence.

“A lot of people are confused that hermits have computers,” says Fredette. I reached her by video chat one morning at her secluded home, tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. She popped up on my screen, seated in her wood-paneled living room in front of her own computer, wearing a light blue, embroidered shirt and glasses.

“Computers are a great aid to many people in hermit life,” she says. “One time we asked the readers of Raven’s Bread, are computers good or not good for hermits? Some people thought that, well, a computer would be all right, but not any connection to the Internet and others said, well, it would take a lot of self control not to get drawn in to spending all your time on the computer with Internet or email.”

Conflicting opinions aside, computers are good for making money, Fredette pointed out. While some hermits are lucky enough to live on land owned by spiritual groups, many still have to pay rent and buy the basics. If you can sell your wares or skills online then you can conduct your work while minimizing contact with others.

But plenty of hermits have day jobs.

Fredette once cleaned houses. “The people I worked for were away at their day jobs and I’d come in and clean their house very quietly and leave.” She knows hermits who work as nurses. She knows a hermit who picks grapes at a winery. She sends newsletters to the suburbs and the city. In 2001, Fredette conducted a survey of her readers and received 132 responses. 31 percent lived in rural areas, almost as many lived in urban areas, a third lived in suburbia and eight lived in an inner city. “There can be hermits walking down the street,” says Fredette. “You’ll not know them for who they are.”

Fredette says a typical day for a hermit will include praying, spiritual reading and being contemplative: “Focusing on one thing at a time and not multitasking.”

The burning question, of course, for those of us who sit with our Facebook pages open and cellphones within arms reach, is: Why?

The burning question, of course, for those of us who sit with our Facebook pages open and cellphones within arms reach, is: Why?

It’s important, Fredette says, for people to realize that hermits are not people-haters. Fredette describes it as a calling.

“There’s a spiritual connection,” she says. “You can picture a wheel, there’s a hub, there’s the spokes going out to the rim and the people on the rim are usually moving pretty fast and about to fly off. But if you’ve got the spokes going to the hub where the hermits are, they are sort of in a way holding society from flying completely apart. It’s a spiritual realization, but I think it’s a real one.”

So is it hard to be a hermit?

“One can get very lonely,” Fredette admits. “I think it would be very strange if they didn’t go through periods of loneliness. But if you stick it out, if you can go through the loneliness – and you have to – you reach a lower level. And that’s solitude. That is a very rich, beautiful place.”

Maine State Police photo shows the makeshift camp site of  Christopher Knight in Rome, Maine taken following his arrest on April 4, 2013. The 47-year-old man lived for almost three decades as a hermit near a pond in central Maine, where he supported himself by stealing food from nearby camps. / Rueters.
Karen and Paul Fredette run a newsletter and website for hermits, and have written a book on the hermit life./ Courtesy Karen and Paul Fredette
Michaela Terrio, who had been living as a hermit at Sky Farm in Sonoma, California for ten years. / Courtesy Sky Farm
A meditation bench at Sky Farm. / Courtesy Sky Farm

    When I arrived at Sonoma’s quaint town square, I kept trying to pick Michaela out of the crowd. No, not her, too fancy. No, not her, too pregnant. I had plenty of time to wonder if I would get to meet the other hermits, if they would talk about me amongst themselves and if they would like me. Perhaps my neurotic need for approval from the hermits was something I could ponder during my crack at peace and solitude.

    When I finally did meet her she had short, curling hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a warm smile. She was driving a white Mini Cooper. I wasn’t sure if I should go in for a handshake, but she greeted me with a hug.

    We drove up a long, winding road, past rolling wheat-colored hills dotted with trees. As we cruised past neat rows of grapes, we made small talk about how over the years wineries had crept closer and closer to the hermitage. Sky Farm sat at the end of the long road. It consisted of a small cluster of buildings surrounded by trees, hills and rocks framed by a bright blue sky. Hawks circled overhead, a flock of wild turkeys bustled around the grounds and lizards with jewel-green bellies surfaced and vanished.

    Michaela showed me the kitchen and library (mostly books about hermits) where there was a picture window and took me to a tiny chapel built into an enormous wine barrel. (This was Wine Country, after all.) Inside it was dark and cool. There was a small stained-glass window and an altar with an enormous Bible on it.

    Finally, Michaela took me to my hermitage: I felt like I was at a religious boutique hotel. It was a small cottage with a bright yellow door, a gleaming kitchen and a small porch with a cast iron bench from which I could survey my surroundings. Once Michaela had showed me around the cottage, she said goodbye and left me alone.

    That time I spent with Michaela, scarcely an hour, was the only time I was in her physical presence.

    The first thing I did was poke through every drawer. I was relieved to find a corkscrew. At the last minute I had brought a bottle of wine with me (this was about being solitary, not sober, I had decided) and apparently this was okay. No Bible in the bedside table, but I found an individual packet of tissues and a plastic bottle of holy water.

    The second thing I did, on my quest to explore my capacity for solitude, was hike out onto the road in search of cell reception so that I could text my boyfriend that I had arrived safely. This is my Carrie Bradshaw moment, I thought. I suck at being a hermit.

    By the time I returned, the sun was dipping behind the mountains. I sat on my porch and watched the sky turn gold, then pink, then purple, then grey and finally black. It was incredibly quiet. I watched the stars turn on one by one and then I went to bed, preparing to wake up to a full day of hermitting.

    ****

    “My hermits are, of course, ornamental, decorative hermits,” says Gordon Campbell, a professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester. It seems that craving the hermit life wasn’t always just a lifestyle choice. It was a profession — of sorts. According to Campbell, who penned an entire book on the phenomena, “The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome,” moneyed English landowners hiring hermits used to be all the rage in Victorian England.

    Every generation likes to think they invented being “too busy,” but a fascination with the simple life did not arrive in tandem with social networking. During the 18th century in England, an obsession with hermits swept the upper classes, manifesting in a manner that seems utterly bizarre today.

    As the craze for dramatic landscapes studded with fake ruins overtook the upper classes, many felt their estates were not complete without a hermitage and a hermit as well. Ads were placed for individuals to occupy the hermitages in local papers.

    “The newspaper advertisement usually said ‘summer only, daytime, mustn’t cut their hair or wash for seven years,’ and they would be fed one meal a day from the big house,” says Campbell.

    The reason for hiring a hermit, aside from completing the perfect garden?

    “In a way,” says Campbell, “He [the landowner] was sort of outsourcing his contemplative side. A busy CEO doesn’t have time to be contemplative, so he can hire a hermit to represent the thoughtful side of his personality.”

    Even in 18th century England, people were too busy to think.

    The trend peaked in the 1760s, at which point, Campbell says, “virtually every country house garden had a hermitage.” Applicants were often agricultural workers and the gigs varied wildly. One hermit was given a bell to ring to order food. Another was given books. Yet another received organ lessons (“This was a hermit who lived in a cave and wasn’t allowed to be seen but he could smash on his organ so he could be heard.”) One doubled as a bartender and his hermitage as a wine bar when his employer threw a party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Campbell has never found a record of a hermit lasting through his agreed-upon stint at a landowner’s hermitage, some of which were intended to last years. And hermits could be fired — there is record of one being released from his duties for flirting with a milkmaid in town.

    What was in it for the hermits? Money.

    Some advertisements promised 600 pounds for seven years of service. “That was an amount of money where you never had to work again,” says Campbell. “Now that sounds quite appealing to me on some days.”

    While nowadays, to be melancholy is a negative, says Campbell, in the 18th it was all the rage. The hermit and his hermitage embodied a kind of thoughtfulness that people believed should be valued, even if they’d rather pay a hermit to do it for them.

    Eventually the trend died out, partly because adherents of the abolitionist movement thought the practice had the whiff of slavery about it. But it was not, Campbell assured me, something taken lightly when it was in fashion.

    “Part of the difficulty in writing about this is that is seems bizarre,” says Campbell. “But it didn’t to them. There’s a shift of sensitivity there, in the sense that something they took very seriously seems to us hilarious.”

    A view of the rectory (library and kitchen) facing west. / Courtesy Sky Farm
    Some 17th century landowners wanted a hermit, but not the fuss of housing a real person. The “Hermit of Arlesheim” is a puppet, located on a historic property in Switzerland. / Courtesy Oxford University Press
    Oaks on the grounds of Sky Farm in late summer. / Courtesy Sky Farm
    A 17th century hermitage erected during Victorian England’s craze for hired hermits, located on the 27,000 acre Brocklesby estate in Lincolnshire, England. / Courtesy Oxford University Press

      When I woke up at Sky Farm I laid in bed for a while before opening up some yogurt and eating it on the porch, where I looked out at a violet morning sky and another guest hermitage just a few yards from mine. There was another weekend hermit in there; I could hear him or her making their own breakfast. But I never saw them. (I never saw anyone, actually, while I was at Sky Farm.) Maybe he or she never came out.

      With breakfast out of the way, I had an entire day ahead of me. I had decided early on that I wasn’t going to force any spiritual awakenings. This was more an experiment about being alone than anything else. To that end, I had packed reading material.

      First I read the New Yorker back-to-back. (Okay, I skipped a long political story.) Then I walked to a bench overlooking a dry creek and sat there for a while. There were well-positioned benches scattered throughout the grounds and I spent a lot of my time rotating through them. I tried sitting in the chapel. I flipped through the bible.

      I went to the library and snooped (there was Trader Joe’s ice cream and raviolis in the freezer) before settling in to read books about hermits. My favorite was one that chronicled a hermit conference in 1975 in Wales. “There is,” it read, “as all who took part in this meeting were vividly aware, an almost comic incongruity in convening a meeting to speak about a life given to solitude and silence.”

      I went for a walk in the heat, I returned, and then I sat some more.

      Sitting and looking became my primary activity. Here’s the thing about sitting and looking: you hardly ever do it. But what else is there to do when you have no one to talk to, no internet connection and are surrounded by nature? Frankly, I found that I excelled at sitting and looking.

      Sitting and looking became my primary activity. Here’s the thing about sitting and looking: you hardly ever do it. But what else is there to do when you have no one to talk to, no internet connection and are surrounded by nature? Frankly, I found that I excelled at sitting and looking.

      It turned out that I also excelled in the timing of my hermitude. It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and the sun hung fat and hot in the sky. At night a thing called a supermoon rose: a moon that shone like a spotlight, so close it seemed like you could touch it.

      A doe and her fawn made their way past my porch and stopped a few feet from me, pausing to sample the grass. A glossy black snake emerged from a nearby bush, pointed his flickering tongue at me, and relocated beneath my cottage.

      I waited for a light to come on in the mountains that I had spotted the night before. There was a house up there, and I could see the orange square of their window plainly in the distance. I wondered who they were and occasionally wished there was someone to tell about the deer and the snake and then thought it was nice that no one knew but me.

      I sat there for hours before it finally got cold and then I went to sleep.

      ****

      After I left the hermitage, weeks passed before I spoke to Terrio again. Would she even agree to let a journalist interview her about her life? But Terrio was happy to talk to me, and we picked a date when I could call her up and ask her all manner of personal questions.

      Before Terrio was a hermit, she was a just a regular girl growing up in “the middle of nowhere.”

      Specifically, nowhere was the San Joaquin valley, a rural swatch of land near Sacramento covered in farms. Her family was Catholic, and church was important to them. Whenever her dad brought her and her siblings into town, they’d visit two places: the pet store and the church. After high school she headed to Fresno State to study medicine. She only finished one year.

      “I just had this profound sense of how loved I was by this divine being,” says Terrio, laughing. “I understood my happiness would be in some form of service. And I thought it would be medical service, but then it was the monastery.”

      Terrio was on a religious retreat in Aptos, California when a friend asked her if she wanted to go pray at a monastery. The monastery was home to Poor Clare Nuns, an order that has existed for centuries.

      She immediately felt she belonged there.

      “It was a cloistered order which means once you went in you didn’t go out except for things like a doctor appointment,” says Terrio. “You didn’t go home to see your family. They could come see you but you were separated so they were sort of on one side of a grating and you were on the other and the first year they could come every month, the second year every two months. Once I was in final vows, just a couple times a year. That was very hard for me, because family was important.”

      It wasn’t a seamless transition. Like any parents whose kid has a Big Idea, her mother and father said, “We’ll talk about it when you come home.” It was hard for them, Terrio says, when they realized she was serious. And then there was the “sweetheart” she had to part with.

      “I never, never anticipated not having children or a husband,” says Terrio. “Or not having a family.”

      In time, she says, the nuns came to feel like her “monastic family.” She stayed at the monastery for 17 years. Then, one day, she was ready to leave.

      Terrio was working at a spiritual retreat when she became friends with a group of monks and together they dreamed of finding a patch of land where they could “do a hermit life.” They quickly realized that they didn’t have the capital to buy real estate. That’s when Father Dunstan Morrisey, the founder of Sky Farm, came calling.

      “In my life,” says Terrio, “things that I need always come to me.”

      Morrisey, a monk, founded Sky Farm in 1974 and now that he was getting on in years, he was looking for a group of younger hermits to take it over. Within a month of contacting Terrio, she and her friends had been made board members of Sky Farm, a non-profit, and within a year she had moved there. That was ten years ago.

      Most mornings, she emerges from her hermitage and sits with a cup of coffee before beginning her prayer. Then she has breakfast and commences doing what she calls her “dailies”: feeding the cats, watering the plants.

      “It’s a flexible day but it goes back and forth between prayer and work and the practice of just being still,” says Terrio. “It means physical stillness at times, but it means an inner stillness.”

      Everything sounds idyllic and lovely — mostly. Finally, I blurt out what’s been nagging me this whole time: “I just can’t fathom how you don’t get lonely.”

      Terrio takes the question in stride. “It’s really and truly a deep sense of connection,” she says, echoing what Fredette told me. “I feel deeply connected.”

      ****

      When I left the hermitage, my return to “real life” was swift. I was ferried away by a friend in her car to the highway, where we sat in a traffic jam caused by a nearby NASCAR competition.

      When I told the same friend over cocktails at a loud bar that I was writing about hermits, she said: “Oh, so they’re just like people who work from home!” She wasn’t the only person to make that joke. I laughed, since I’m one of those people and it is true, I spend most of my days alone. So many people are now familiar with the experience of never shedding their pajamas, not leaving the house for days, never hearing their voice out loud all day long. And that rubs up against one of the other great angsts of our time, that all of our connectivity — Snapchat, Gchat, Facebook — is somehow serving to push us further apart. We’re stressed out about talking too much and just as freaked out about being alone.

      Digital detox” has come to be accepted as a reasonable response to our connected lives. Urban centers seem increasingly accessible only for the very rich, and rural living, and the solitude it affords, holds appeal. But choosing to be alone, really alone? That decision still seems shocking.

      But after talking to Terrio and Fredette, I realize that the joke equating hermits with housebound workers didn’t make sense. Terrio and Fredette don’t feel lonely. They feel deeply in touch with the world around them, even if that world doesn’t include much contact with people.

      It turns out, though, that even among hermits, there are gradations of solitude. As Terrio tells me, she was going on a retreat the next week to have some “serious deep quiet.” Even hermits can feel crowded in on by life.

      Alone, Not Lonely: On Modern Hermits