Anchorites (anachoreo, I withdraw), also hermits (eremitai, desert-dwellers, Lat., eremitoe), in Christian terminology, men who have sought to triumph over the two unavoidable enemies of human salvation, the flesh and the devil, by depriving them of the assistance of their ally, the world. The natural impulse of all earnest souls to withdraw temporarily or forever from the tumult of social life was sanctioned by the examples and teachings of Scripture. St. John Baptist in the desert and Our Lord, withdrawing ever and anon into solitude, were examples which incited a host of holy men to imitate them. Since these men despised and shunned the world, it cannot surprise us that the world answered with corresponding contempt. The world is an imperious tyrant, and thoroughly selfish; niggardly in its gratitude to those lofty souls whose lives are entirely devoted to its betterment without regard to its praise or censure. It pursues as rebels, and derides as fools, those who shake off its yoke and scatter to the winds its riches, honors, and pleasures. In its extremest isolation, the life of the Christian anchorite is no Nirvana. The soul occupied with divine thoughts freed from all distracting cares leads an existence most consonant to man’s rational nature, and consequently productive of the highest type of happiness obtainable on this earth. Moreover, no matter how deeply the hermit buries himself in the thicket or wilderness, he is always within easy reach of the call of charity. First of all, kindred spirits will seek him out. Hundreds of cells will cluster about his; his experience will be invoked for the drawing up of rules of order and for spiritual guidance; in short, his hermitage is gradually transformed into a monastery, his solitary life into the cenobitic. If he again longs for solitude, and plunges deeper into the desert, the same process will begin, as we see in the case of St. Anthony of Egypt. Furthermore, though these saintly men have thrown off the yoke of the world, they remain subject to the authority of the Church, at whose command, in critical times, they have issued forth from their retirement, like fresh reserve forces, to strengthen the dispirited ranks of her spiritual army. Thus did Anthony (286-356) come to Alexandria on the appeal of Athanasius; thus did the sons of Benedict, and Romuald, and Bruno, and Bernard, do yeomen’s work in the medieval struggle with barbarism. Indeed, it would be difficult to point out a single great champion of Christian civilization who was not trained to the spiritual combat in the wilderness.
The chief resorts of the earliest of these fugitives from human society were the vast deserts of Egypt and Syria, whose caves and tombs soon housed an incredible number of Christian ascetics. The first attempts at self-discipline by this untutored host were sometimes crude, and tinctured with Oriental fanaticism; but before long the authority of the Church and the wise maxims of great spiritual masters, notably Pachomius, Hilarion, and Basil, fashioned them into a well disciplined army, with distinct aims and methods. Soon the rule obtained, that those only should be authorized to live solitary lives who had previously spent a time of probation in a monastery, and had been permitted by their abbot to withdraw. Between the monks, who lived and worked in common (the so-called cenobites) and the hermits, who passed their lives in absolute solitude, there were many gradations. Some lived in separate cells and met only for prayer, some for meals, some only on Sundays. The strangest form of asceticism was that adopted by the Stylites (q.v.), men who lived for years on the tops of high columns, from which they exhorted and instructed the awe-stricken populace. Coming to more modern times, canonists distinguish four different species of Hermits: (I) Those who have taken the three monastic vows in some religious order approved by the Church. Such are the Hermits of St. Augustine, the Hermits of St. Jerome, etc. (2) Those who live in common with a form of life approved by the bishop. (3) Those who without vows or community life adopt a peculiar habit with the approval of the bishop, and by him are deputed to the service of a church or oratory. (4) Those who, without any ecclesiastical authority, adopt the “habitus eremiticus” and live under no rule. To obviate possible abuses on the part of this last class of hermits, the Holy See has at different times issued stringent legislation, which may be read in Benedict XIV “De Syn. Dicec.” VI, iii, 6, or in Ferraris, “Bibliotheca”, s.v. “Eremita”.
JAMES F. LOUGHLIN