Longing for Hermitage by Elizabeth Cunningham


Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegAt least since the days of the Desert Mothers in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, there have been women in the Christian tradition (and doubtless other traditions) who have lived lives in religious solitude, whether by choice or circumstance.  In Medieval Europe many churches had anchorholds, small enclosures inhabited by men or women dedicated to a life of solitude and prayer. The word anchorhold implies that the presence of the anchoress or anchorite grounded the church community, but the word derives from the ancient Greek verb (pronounced anachōreō) for to retire or withdraw.  Anchoress Julian of Norwich is still revered as the author Revelations of Divine Love, possibly the earliest surviving book written by a woman in the English language.  Six centuries after her death, her vision of Jesus our Mother continues to challenge, comfort, and inspire.

I grew up in an Episcopal rectory, daughter of a secretly agnostic mother who loathed being a minister’s wife (living in a fishbowl, she said) and a father who preached and practiced the social gospel as had his father before him. If you weren’t directly feeding, clothing, visiting “the least of these my brethren,” your pieties (as my father dismissed them) were worthless. At every meal we prayed, “make us always mindful of the needs of others.”  Selfishness and individualism were synonymous. The pronoun “I” was frowned upon.  The only route to salvation was social and/or political activism. My father walked his talk, literally, taking part in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

When I was sixteen, I found myself drawn to Miss Sang, one of my father’s parishioners. I remember going with my family to dinner at her house, an old house, yet spacious and full of light. Instead of enduring an evening tagging along with my family, I had an epiphany. I sensed in Miss Sang a peace (hard won, I later learned) that I had never encountered in anyone else. Her wordless pleasure in simple things, setting a table, for example, mystified and entranced me.  I wanted to know her. She graciously allowed me into her life, and became what I called my fairy godmother.  She was the first woman I ever knew who lived alone, and she was the first contemplative Christian I ever encountered.  She had done her share of good work in the world, including serving as an army nurse during the Second World War. But it was not her doing that defined her; it was her being.  In my life, Miss Sang became anchorhold in both senses of the word.

Six years later, I began writing my first novel when I was a guest at Miss Sang’s house. My father had actively discouraged my desire to write, insisting that I knew nothing of the real world and could have nothing worth saying unless I worked as a social worker till the age of forty.  In his view, writing novels did not count as service. Nevertheless, I completed The Wild Mother and have been writing novels ever since.  It is noteworthy that most of my novels have hermits lurking in them somewhere, women in caves or on tidal islands or even in the gardens at the Temple of Jerusalem.

Now at sixty, after raising a family and directing a community center (and never feeling that I have done enough social or political action) I find myself longing for hermitage. I have moved to a place where I can explore what that means.  Right now I am observing a six month moratorium on making new commitments. I do not want to re-create compulsive patterns in order to persuade my long-dead father that I am not a spiritual deadbeat. I want to deepen my understanding of service. According to an anonymous contemporary anchoress, hermits of old served as lighthouse keepers and spiritual counselors, offices which call to mind the Hermit card in Tarot.

It takes more than a hermitage or an anchorhold to make a hermit. Desert Mother Amma Syncletica notes, “It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.”  I still have to elbow my way through a host of conflicting thoughts , but every now and, a clear voice comes through and the thoughts fall silent.

From my journal:

Outside this morning, I hear:
You there, I want you here, standing still,
a background, point of light, field of color
in what I am creating. Who are you to say:
“Don’t you think I should be doing something
more active, more useful, more…important?”
Who are you to judge? Have you seen the whole design?
Just be here, right here where I’ve placed you.
That’s all I’m asking of you. Do it.

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.

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Categories: Art, Belief, Female Saints, Fiction, Foremothers, General, Healing the Sacred Divide, Hermitage, Social Gospel, Spiritual Journey, Vowed Religious, Women Religious, Women's Spirituality

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33 replies

  1. Dearest Elizabeth, I want to say how much I love your voice and your stories. I enjoy now being able to visualize the setting at Miss Sang’s in which you began The Wild Mother, my favorite of your first novels. You continue to bless all of us who love you and love the characters you’ve created. Very best wishes for your explorations into “hermitage.” Thank you for continuing to share your life with your friends and readers. –Charlotte Collins

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  2. Thank you for this rich and insightful post to which I gratefully resonate! I am especially fascinated by your exploration of the relationship between being solitary and being a service provider and activist. I have been the director of community centers for elders for almost two decades while at the same time trying to honor the solitary nature I’ve had from childhood. For almost all that time I’ve separated my “director life” from what I thought of as my “spiritual life” of which solitary contemplation is an essential part. Only recently have I come to see that the two are deeply intertwined – the centeredness and calm that I get from my solitary moments benefits those with whom I interact at the community center, especially those in crisis, while the wisdom I learn from witnessing and sharing in the life experiences of the elders I come to know at the center is essential to my spiritual life. Finding ways to honor and live a life of solitude in the midst of a century that rarely acknowledges its importance, as you are, is in itself a wonderful way to be of service to others who may need encouragement to follow their own solitary paths. I hope you’ll write more about your experiences of seeking hermitage!

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    • Thanks for your reflections, Carolyn. Sounds like we are soul kin. I appreciate how you express the connections between your active and contemplative life. And how well you describe the challenge of valuing solitude in a time when social networking has become a way of life.

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  3. Brava! Does living alone with two cats count as anchorhood? As always, I love your writing and count your friendship as one of the blessings of my life.

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  4. Thanks, ba! Yes, I would say your home is an anchorhold! Cats, if not essential, certainly enhance the life of a hermit. I have three! love and blessed bees!

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  5. Every so often, an article or post appears in my life at EXACTLY the right time, bringing wisdom to help me answer questions I’ve been struggling with or shedding light on a my own situation. As a long-time social worker, with a life long servant/helper way of moving through the world – I am dealing with the desire to pull back, withdraw, and go inward. This desire for solitude has always seemed to appear in cycles; however, the cycles are shortening and the urge to spend time alone has become stronger as I age. It seems as if my tolerance for chaos, politics, and nastiness has decreased and that instead of trying to “fight” all that, I’m choosing more to retreat. This is a foreign feeling to me…perhaps it’s aging? Acceptance of things that I cannot change? Perhaps I feel more and more protective of my precious life energy, my inner peace, and my health? Not sure, but I certainly enjoyed reading this…great food for thought.

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  6. Eliz … I (and countless others) are standing in the same shoes. As a Priestess of The Goddess, hand-chosen by Hekate, I am in the middle of a journey into katabasis…my underworld. I am being asked to grow in ways I never imagined, and am currently on an exploration of the “spiritual underbelly” if New Orleans. … not a place I ever thought to find myself…..I am not sure what is being asked of me right this minute, other than to be still and listen and observe, but I know I will find out. I just need to remember – in each moment, we have the choice to walk in fear or love. I choose love…

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  7. Thank you for sharing. What a powerful thing to read before starting up another week.

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  8. Glad to read this with coffee this morning as I was just thinking about you yesterday (yes, you – not our more outspoken “celebrity”)
    Back in the late 80’s I was blessed to spend 5 days with Henri Nouwen. He may be the only contemplative I have ever known who did so in community; a special community and perhaps intense community at that.
    Even as the outcome of Siddhartha’s sojourn is understood I often wonder if that Nazareth fellow qualified? Perhaps he modeled more of a “nomadic” life of hermitage. But then I tend to wonder about things that never occur to others.
    Thanks for sharing and as you can/want/do – like many I will be thinking and reading along with you. Blessings!

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    • Henri Nouwen was one of my favorite authors in that time I spent with Miss Sang. Must have been amazing to be with him. I like the idea of nomadic hermitage. Thanks for reading and for writing.

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  9. I have been given a grace in reading these words. My heritage, my heart, my divine light all just sighed at once. Always a hermit, trying to be of service in some small way… it will be interesting if in your solitude you find a way to weave, the service with the souls need for sanctuary.
    Thank you Elizabeth… this made my day..

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  10. I loved the poem, Elizabeth – and you know how long I have loved Julian of Norwich. thank you for these wise words….

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  11. A friend of mine posted this on FB and it knocked me over! I started to cry. I almost felt permission, if you will, to be who I am. I am often persecuted for being an independent, introverted spiritual thinker. I am trying to find where I can move and love my space and be in my usual state if contemplation. At salt water would be nice. Thank you!

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    • I know those feelings so well, Inga! Near salt water is a wonderful place for hermitage. Hope you find your way there.

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      • I have spent most of my life as an activist. I work in a classic “helping field” job. I find myself, the older I get, under attack seemingly for enjoying my own company and processing the world from within rather than from outside of my own way of interpreting things. I’m not inflexible, rather I am compassionate towards others because what they are going through, in my mind, is not happening to me. I can sit in some hard placed with people to support. I try to meet people where they’re at. What I have noticed is I don’t get much of the same in return and I am becoming more and more annoyed by that. Hermitage at the water seems good right about now. Doing big actions of activism interests me less and less. Being who I am, at 50, is an action in and of itself. I am finding that being mostly silent, but visible, is my new activism.

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    • “Being who I am, at 50, is an action in and of itself.” Well said! Beautiful!

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  12. As always, Elizabeth, a pleasure to read what you’ve written. Sixty is pretty old within the Hindu tradition to begin your vanaprastha or hermit stage. Until recently a Hindu was to retreat after his/her family was raised in order to spend his/her life in meditation. I think many traditions have this custom. I’m older than you are, but I’m not quite ready, although I meditate and walk every day. Maybe it’s not age. My daughter used always call me an extra-extrovert. It’s hard enough for me to sit alone and write. Are you an introvert, Elizabeth?

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    • Yes, I feel like I’ve waited quite a while, Nancy. I think I am an introvert, but I can pass, so to speak, as an extrovert, so some people are surprised.

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      • Introvert with social skills here! I think, personally, that word introvert refers to how we process the information set before us.

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      • Interesting idea, Inga. How does the processing differ, do you think? My own distinction between introverts and extroverts is what recharges us and what drains us. No matter how well I appear to function in a social situation, I feel exhausted or enervated afterwards. Solitude refreshes. It is like laundering my soul!

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  13. Thank you, Elizabeth. You always give me something of worth to chew on.

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  14. Thanks, Judith. Good to see you here!

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  15. I have spent my whole 67 years, I think, trying to be someone I am not. Sometimes I succeeded in the task but never succeeded in satisfying my longing for something, what I had no idea. I have been a manager, a nurse, a “horse person”, a secretary, an Episcopal deacon, a novelist, and oh well, just everything. Then a few years ago a new spiritual director, listening to my monologue about my journey said “you are meant to be a solitary, not one who is in the world but one who observes it and prays for it.” It was like she had shone a light on my longing and the true meaning had shone through. Now I sit in silence, write my novels and discover all the ways of prayer. I’m not yet finished but in discovery and I am happy. It is nice to know that there are others on a like journey.

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