02 September 2013

What Features are Essential in a Hermitage?

Example of Small home from Tumbleweed Homes
[[Dear Sister, [I am sending you links to a site that sells small houses that I couldn't help thinking would be perfect for hermits.] What advice would you give in setting up a hermitage? What features are essential? What advice would you give to someone in selecting a place to live as a hermit? What should be in a hermitage? Do you think urban hermit life has different considerations than suburban or country living? Your insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.]]

Thanks for the link and for the questions. It is good to hear from you again. In the rest of this post I am going to focus on the "What should be in a hermitage" question and leave aside the questions about setting up a hermitage, etc. That one and the other questions open up a lot of significant facets which can be explored in future posts.

Cottage from Tumbleweed
I have seen this site before and have had others suggest the houses would be perfect for hermits as well. While these homes might well work for some hermits what is true is the cottage type would be better for solitary hermits while the very small ones like that shown above are better for hermits who live in a laura with others and have other buildings as part of an eremitical campus as well (e.g., space for a library, chapel, chapter and/or dining room, space for meeting with clients or guests, storage for pantry and other necessities, and a laundry with space for sorting, sewing/tailoring, and ironing, etc.). Some monasteries have such set ups with individual dwellings (or paired dwellings) for the nuns which are somewhat similar to the one pictured. There is a single room with additional bathroom and a loft area above the bathroom some use for sleeping. Still, much of the rest of the Sister's living is done in other monastery buildings. The "cell" is a kind of private space for sleeping, bathing, some private prayer and personal work, etc. Hermits living on retreat house property are in a similar situation.

Because solitary hermits do not have a monastery (etc) to draw on and also must support themselves, I generally think that they tend to need two or three rooms besides a kitchen/dining area. They must be able to accommodate a small library (this will differ in size depending on the reasons for the library), a chapel or oratory with tabernacle (if permission for this is granted), a space for meeting with clients or working (writing as well as other kinds of work) -- which can combine with the library, and an area for dining either alone or with at least one other person (the occasional guest, diocesan delegate, spiritual director, etc). (Of course this latter area can be used as a work or writing table at other times, and, depending on its location, can also serve for Mass if one's pastor (et al) comes occasionally to perform that service for the hermit.) If possible, the oratory, especially if Eucharist is reserved there, should be separate from the area in which one meets with others. It should  also be separate from work, and eating areas as far as possible. (This is especially true if one uses a computer and the internet for research, connecting with others, etc. Computer and meeting space needs to be separate from the prayer space and place of reservation.)

One thing I suspect most folks don't consider is that a hermit must also be able to do some physical exercise in her hermitage. How ever one accommodates this need, one may need space for a piece of gym equipment or some other kind of aid in this as well. (If one is not an urban hermit, one may meet one's need for physical exercise by walking, chopping wood, gardening and physical upkeep of the hermitage.) Urban hermits walk, of course, but there is no doubt that living in an urban or suburban setting militates towards staying in more than is true for hermits living in rural and isolated hermitages. Further, the poverty embraced by diocesan hermits also means that a majority of them will not have homes where they can set up workshops, vegetable gardens, etc. They will probably not be signing up for gym memberships for instance so, while a hermit will be creative here, this is assuredly a need which must be addressed in some sense.

In terms of general physical necessities, it seems to me that a hermit's dwelling needs to be sufficiently comfortable to live a contem-plative life and work in relative comfort. What I mean is it should provide sufficient protection from the cold and heat that one can pray and work without the weather being an unnecessary distraction. Personally I think there should be a sense of spaciousness and light. Partly this will be achieved by the simplicity of the furnishings and lack of clutter, but in part it really does mean that one's physical environment is not cramped. Cabin fever and the noonday devil (acedia) are real temptations in eremitical life and one does not want to exacerbate the situation with a place which is dark and unnecessarily crowded. A Beauty expressed in simplicity and order is therefore also important in my opinion (I don't always entirely succeed at this myself!); it contributes to one's inner life, but also reflects that as well. Finally, anything necessary for ordinary daily hygiene is not a luxury but a necessity. We are, after all, speaking of practicing, praying, loving hermits who are instances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a contemporary world, not primitive or self-hating stereotypes.

Another company (sorry, I forget their name) makes units which can be linked to one another with small pre-fabbed connectors and I think in some ways these would work as well as or better for solitary hermits than the Tumbleweed houses and cottages. Shaped like half a dodecahedron or something similar they are also similar in their small footprints and eco-sensitivity, and because they are modular, they can accommodate several different spaces for work, prayer, meetings or hospitality, etc. I also really like Edward Blazona's modular approach to this topic because he does a lot with spaciousness, light, and clean lines, and because the combinations possible are seemingly infinite. Anyway, this should serve as a beginning of a conversation. If it raises questions, please send them on!