Isabel Colegate, Counterpoint Press, 320 pages, $25
When the English novelist Isabel Colegate, author of the acclaimed The Shooting Party, discovered an abandoned hermit’s cell in her garden, she restored it and thereby acquired an interest in the subject of hermits and solitaries. The result is this delightful book that offers intriguing insights into the lives of hermits.
The title of her book comes from a poem by the 17th-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, who wrote, “A Man that studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.”
Most of the hermits in this book found happiness in their solitude. Colegate sometimes plays down the God part of that solitude, but it is always there, and she writes quite affectionately and often wisely of these seekers after divine grace.
Though not all the solitaries in the book are Christian, or even religious, Colegate includes most of the really famous Christian hermits. We read about St. Anthony, who was “happy and sane” living for more than two decades in an abandoned fort on a bank of the Nile; St. Simon Stylites, whose pillar became a place of pilgrimage during his lifetime; and St. Seraphim, the beloved Russian mystic who believed the purpose of life to be “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” But we also learn about obscure hermits such as Robert of Knaresborough, a twelfth-century Yorkshire man who took permanently to his hermitage after being scandalized by what seemed to him the easy living of the Cluniac monks.
At a few junctures, this book reads a bit like Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. There was even at least one instance of overlap, in the formidable person of Lady Hester Stanhope, one of my favorite characters. Lady Hester, the granddaughter of Lord Chatham, took to the Arabian Desert and set up as a recluse at Djoun, not far from Sidon in Lebanon, though from time to time she engaged in local warfare and entertained visitors. Like Thomas Merton, who is also in the book, Lady Hester was a sociable hermit. She even had an affair with “a travelling English grandee a good deal younger than herself.” “She was thought a great princess in Syria,” Colegate writes. A firsthand report of Lady Hester as a desert warrior came from Alexander Kinglake, whose mother was a friend of Lady Hester’s. He described her rising in her stirrups and shouting, “Avaunt!” (Kinglake was the historian who once wrote, “If I had my way, I would write in every church, chapel and cathedral only one line: ‘Important if True.’”)
When dealing with Catholic mystics and hermits, Colegate makes an annoying mistake. From time to time, she puts forward the clichéd notion that they were at odds with the “institutional Church.” “Their works were produced largely outside the boundaries of the established Church,” she writes of 14th-century English mystics like Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing. This would have been news to all three. It simply isn’t true—indeed, Cloud of Unknowing advocates sacramental confession to a priest as the first step on the journey to holiness.
The Church did, of course, feel a certain obligation to be wary of endorsing strange or dangerous spiritual exercises. There was good reason for this. Even the author of Cloud of Unknowing acknowledged that the life of the mystic is fraught with peril. As Colegate notes, he warned those who strained for a “spurious warmth” that came from their own exertions but which they ascribed to the Holy Spirit. “The earthly and physical fancies of inventive imaginations are very fruitful of error,” he noted. In the same vein, he wrote, “I tell you truly that the devil has his contemplatives as God has his.”
There is also the all-too-common tendency to see the Church as anti-woman. Ironically, it almost inevitably surfaces, as it does in this book, whenever there is a discussion of Hilda of Whitby, the great Anglo-Saxon abbess and one of the Church’s most powerful women. Hilda’s high status is seen as a reflection of the way women were viewed before the supposedly woman-hating Normans conquered England and began to deprive women of their rightful place. Colegate buys into this popular misconception. She opines that in the tenth and eleventh centuries, “women were hated and feared as much as [at] any time in history.”
These failings, though unfortunate, do not mar the overall quality of the book. One of the ideas that comes across quite distinctly is that most of these Christian hermits were men and women of holiness and sanity. Colegate writes, “These medieval hermits have a robust English air about them.” Godric of Finchdale, for example, was a peddler in Lincolnshire who went on to make a bundle in the shipping business. Then his vessel called in at Lindisfarne Island, where he learned from the monks the story of St. Cuthbert. Inspired, Godric became a hermit and wrote hymns that are still sung today.
The hermit life almost died out after the Reformation, according to Colegate, but in 1983 canon law once again provided for it. There is a particularly charming interview with a Benedictine monk called Father Aidan who became a hermit. He was affiliated with the Benedictine monastery of Ampleforth, which runs one of England’s two great Catholic public schools (Father Aidan is also an Ampleforth Old Boy). “When he first suggested becoming a hermit,” Colegate writes, “the attitude was simply, we don’t have hermits—‘as it might have been, we don’t keep bees,’ he said.” Father Aidan eventually received final permission to become a hermit from his abbot, then Father Basil Hume, who went on to become the Catholic primate of England. Father Aidan (who did, in fact, eventually become a beekeeper) lived from 1969 to 1975 in his hermitage on the moors, twelve miles from Ampleforth—“too far, as his abbot had put it, for hermit-hunting boys on a Sunday afternoon.”
Father Aidan met Colegate at the school, garbed in his “ordinary black Benedictine habit.” “I had a strange feeling that I was my own mother and that this kindly concerned schoolmaster might lean forward and say, Isabel doesn’t fit in very well, we are wondering if this is the right school for her? But I was talking to the hermit not the schoolmaster. His desire had been to live with God as a spouse.”
While I fear I must withhold my nihil obstat on account of the author’s misperceptions about “the institutional Church,” I am happy to confer my literary imprimatur on a thoroughly enjoyable book.
This review originally appeared in the September 2002 edition of Crisis magazine.