26 July 2015

On the Distinction Between Anchorites and Hermits

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I was recently reading a book on the history of Christian hermits. The book made the distinction between hermits and anchorites. I have read about this distinction before and it does seem present in the Middle Ages. Certain saints are described as either anchorites OR hermits. Not both. It would seem that the vocations are similar but different.

This book said that in the Middle Ages anchorites (either male or female) were known for their intense seclusion. Whereas hermits lived in solitude but were often integrated into the local community. For example, they would receive visitors, do service for the community like teaching, fixing roads and bridges and tend to the sick and poor all the while living in solitude and living an intense life of prayer. Apparently this was especially the case in England and Scotland during the Middle Ages.

There was a clear distinction between anchorites and hermits. Anchorites also seemed to be under certain canons and ecclesial discipline whereas hermits were a little more on the fringe (while still being faithful to the Church). From what I've read, hermits and their way of life has varied in the Church. Yes, solitude and intense prayer are essential but their level of interaction with "the world" has varied. Not so with anchorites. It seems their calling is predicated on intense solitude and ecclesial approval. 

As such, do you think canon 603 has confused the two vocations? Could there be an argument for reforming the canon to reflect the distinction between hermits and anchorites? Looking at your blog it seems that there may be many people called to a hermit vocation that would include solitude, intense prayer and celibacy whilst still serving the community like the hermits of the Middle Ages. In other words, some seem called to be hermits but not anchorites. Canon 603 does not allow for this distinction. Perhaps as the eremetic vocation is reborn in the Church these distinctions will become clearer.

Thanks for writing again and for the interesting questions. I don't think a distinction between the two is absent throughout the history of eremitism, but, despite the term anachoresis meaning withdrawal, neither do I believe the real distinction is as was presented in the book you read. (My sense is originally the two words, hermit and anchorite were interchangeable. Only over time and especially as urban hermits --  especially women urban hermits -- became a reality did distinctions develop.) Still, both solitary hermits and anchorites lived lives of intense prayer and solitude (they all withdraw or are defined by anachoresis for the purpose of prayer) but the difference between the two seems to be in the degree and even more, in the kind of stability the two embraced.

Anchorites tended to embrace a much more constrained physical stability so that they were  required to remain within a single small house or even a single room. Sometimes they were even locked or walled into such a place. Otherwise, however, both groups dealt with others (sometimes the degree of interaction was relatively extensive); similarly both were often approved to some extent by diocesan canons and local Bishops. Hermits (always men) who traveled from place to place were often granted the hermit tunic and permits to beg and preach by the local ordinary, for instance. But anchorites (who could include both women and men) lived their solitude within a fixed abode; hermits (who were, as you say, more marginal) could wander from town to town or otherwise live their solitude in less physically constrained ways. (Part of this, of course, was due to the fact that women living on their own (apart from the household of a husband) were suspicious to folks and this resulted in practices which brought anchorites under greater church control while hermits could mainly do and go as they pleased.)

Because anchorites tended to live in the midst of villages with a window on the Church altar and one on the village square, they were often unofficial counselors, spiritual directors, a friendly pastoral ear, teachers, wisdom figures, preachers (as, again, were itinerant hermits), etc. Contrary to what you have concluded, while some were certainly secluded like the modern day Nazarena (oftentimes reforms were attempted by priests who wrote Rules for them limiting and regulating their contact with others) the very fact that such reforms were seen as necessary confirms that anchorites were, generally speaking, not so secluded as all that.  The Ancrene Wisse seems to have been written for just such a reason. See also, for instance, Mulder-Bakker's Lives of the Anchoresses, The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe, Liz McEvoy's, Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, or Ann K Warren's, Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England for portraits of their diversity. See also Thomas Matus, OSB Cam's Nazarena for a wonderful portrait of this anchoress and a detailed picture of strict anachoresis and physical stability.

(By the way, let me be clear that I am not including in my own thoughts here the lone individuals who simply go off on their own and even today are called "hermits" despite their lives often being little more than an expression of personal eccentricity, misanthropy, and disedifying individualism. Those have always existed and perhaps always will, but they can muddy the discussion, I think, especially with regard to canon 603 and the type of solitude it calls for. Today we would not call these folks hermits except in a common and somewhat stereotypical sense. Excluding them from the discussion changes the terms significantly I think. And of course canon 603 does NOT define  or govern this kind of "hermit.")

Even so, I don't believe canon 603 has confused the two vocations. When it says "the eremitical or anchoritic life" it may be using the oldest synonymous sense but it can also certainly be seen to mean eremitical life which includes but is not limited to the intense physical stability of the anchorite. I am not sure why you conclude "canon 603 does not allow this distinction". Canon 603 seems to me to be flexible enough to allow for both. It would depend entirely upon the Rule written by the individual and approved by the local diocesan Bishop. In fact, I would argue this is a real strength of canon 603. It does not unnecessarily multiply categories even as the requirement for the individual's own Rule accommodates personal differences and the charismatic work of the Holy Spirit including degree of contact with and ministry to others and the degree of physical stability. Neither does canon 603 distinguish between male and female and it has to be remembered that in much of the history of eremitical life women were not allowed to become solitary hermits living in mountains and forests. They had to live as anchorites in urban contexts. (Men could do either.) Again, I think this flexibility and universality is a real strength of canon 603.

What I am saying is that I don't personally see any need for a codified distinction. Partly that's because I only know of one diocesan hermit who calls herself an anchoress; she is completely free to do that under the canon and this speaks to the canon's sufficiency in this matter. Given the relative rarity of eremitical vocations of any sort a codified distinction seems relatively meaningless to me --- especially since, whether they are hermits or anchorites, those admitted to canonical standing must live the same essential elements of canon 603. Again, the differences will be defined by or otherwise reflected in the individual's Rule. I also mean that unless the definition of the anchorite or anchoress is "the hermit committed to living increased physical stability", the term's use as something distinct tends not to make sense to me today. After all, we already have the descriptor "recluse" to characterize the hermit or anchorite who is almost wholly without contact with others while both men and women under canon 603 are free to lives as urban hermits or as solitary hermits in deserts, forests, or mountains.

In any case, each eremitical vocation will probably involve greater withdrawal at some points and greater contact with others at other points in the hermit's life. Again, canon 603 allows for this within given limits and provided there is adequate discernment involved. A multiplication of categories and distinctions might tend to stifle this pneumatic or charismatic quality of the contemporary solitary eremitical vocation. Throughout the history of the eremitical vocation the all-too-human attempt to codify and qualify (read control!) the movement of the Spirit resulted in somewhat "hardened" categories which could miss the diversity and freedom of the vocation --- part of the reason your author describes anchoritism in one way and mine describe its essence in another! Terms which were mainly descriptive (and helpful when merely descriptive) were made to be prescriptive and applied differently to women and men. As noted, Canon 603 is beautifully written in the way it combines non-negotiable elements and the flexibility of the hermit's own Rule. At least in regard to this discussion, I believe it would be a serious (and probably futile) mistake to codify definitions beyond the non-negotiable elements it already requires.

Excursus: I very much appreciate your putting "the world" in quotes when you describe the hermits' level of interaction with the realm outside the hermitage because we have talked about this before. Still, quotation marks or not, it remains a mistake to automatically call everything outside a hermitage, monastery, or convent "the world" when most truly, worldliness is a description of a resistance to Christ we primarily carry in our hearts. Perhaps a better term for the reference in your question is the longer, "the world (or just "those") outside the anchorhold", etc. So, while I thought the quotation marks were a definite improvement, if you merely mean "the world outside the anchorhold or hermitage" spelling it out might be a yet better choice.