The Substance of Silence: A Reading List About Hermits

Humans are social creatures, and loneliness can be debilitating — yet, many have discovered solace in the solitary life.

By Chris Wheatley

Call them recluses, hermits, or even solitudinarians, examples of folk choosing to live a life apart from their fellow humans are as old as the written word. Many, but not all, of these ancient hermits were motivated by spiritual reasons; in medieval times, anchoresses and anchorites volunteered to be physically sealed into stone chambers abutting churches or monasteries, providing themselves with a literal barrier from the world. Such intentional isolation, in the religious sphere, is often associated with profound wisdom and spiritual pureness — qualities said to arise from a renunciation of material comforts. Hermits have never been confined to the theological world, however. There have always been instances of “ordinary” people living purposefully solitary existences, be it in the remote wilderness or amid the hustle and bustle of modern cities.

To some of us, the idea of such isolation seems terrifying. To others, the thought of an extended period of peace and quiet, a chance to step back and reconnect with ourselves, holds an undeniable appeal. How many of us, though, would be comfortable with the notion of living in solitude for weeks, months, years, even decades? It has long been held that humans are social creatures, and mental health experts are quick to warn against the debilitating effects of loneliness. But weighted against this are numerous stories of those who have discovered great solace in the solitary life.

What remains inarguable is that our fascination with those who chose to live a life removed endures to this day. How can someone exist in this manner, we feel compelled to ask, and why would they choose to do so, considering (or perhaps because of) the modern world’s affordances? The articles curated below delve deep into the mysterious and compelling world of hermits, and surface with some surprising, even moving answers to that very question.

Day of a Stranger (Thomas Merton, Hudson Review, July 1967)

The writer, theologian, social activist, and monk Thomas Merton makes for an unlikely example of a maverick, but certainly that is how he was regarded among many of his peers in the Christian faith. Merton was born in France, his father a New Zealand-born painter, his mother an American Quaker and artist. The family soon settled in the United States, where Merton would eventually enter into the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Catholic monastery in Kentucky. For the last few years of his life he lived alone as a hermit within the Abbey grounds.

For a comprehensive history of Merton’s life and works, together with audio samples and much more, visit the website of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.

A gentle, peaceful character with a deeply poetic soul, Merton was a man ahead of his time, a proponent of interfaith understanding during an era in which such an enterprise could be considered provocative, even heretical. Merton engaged in spiritual dialogue with the Dalai Lama, esteemed Japanese Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, doing much to bring these figures and their philosophies to the attention of the Western world. His 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, caused a seismic shift in the collective consciousness of the American public. In the piece below, the theologian himself writes with moving simplicity, eloquence, and passion on the solitary life and the madness of the modern world.

One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.

The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit (Michael Finkel, GQ, August 2014)

Many of us, I suspect, have experienced a disconnect during a social encounter, whether it be because of a generational gap, a difference in socioeconomic backgrounds, or because the person with whom you are communicating hails from an entirely different part of the globe, with an unfamiliar language and unknown customs. In today’s hyper-connected world, however, it’s almost impossible not to find commonalities of experience. Most of us share the same daily concerns, and the majority are aware of significant global and cultural events. Imagine, however, that you had intentionally cut yourself off from “history” for close to three decades. What would it be like to find yourself thrust back into society, forced to live among people with whom you share little to no common ground?

A 23-minute documentary on Christopher Knight, The True Legend of the North Pond Hermit, by filmmaker and actress Lena Friedrich, is free to watch via Vimeo.

This is exactly what happened to Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living in a tent in the wilderness in Maine, only venturing forth at night to steal food and other items necessary for his survival, before his eventual capture and arrest. What followed, as recounted in this article, tells us much about the modern world, but perhaps the most fascinating element here is the question of exactly why Knight disappeared into the woods, and why he never willingly returned. In order to discover more about the man and his story, writer Michael Finkel had to gain the trust, and eventual friendship of sorts, of a man who could barely recall how to communicate with his fellow humans, or tolerate such interaction for long. Finkel writes movingly of his efforts and emotions during this process.

“I don’t know your world,” he said. “Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live.” He wished he could return to his camp—”I miss the woods”—but he knew by the rules of his release that this was impossible. “Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”

The Peculiar Case of a Modern-Day Hermit (Paul Willis, Vice, November 2015)

In this essay, writer Paul Willis chronicles a time in his life when he felt driven to escape a hectic New York existence — not just to experience the hermit life, but to reconcile the contrasting views of the phenomenon itself. Why is it, he asks, that although psychologists have long been aware of the mental health risks of isolation, stories persist of individuals thriving in such conditions? Could it be that some of us are simply more suited to a solitary existence? Moreover, if humans are social creatures, why do many hermits report feelings of profound peace, freedom, and oneness arising from a life bereft of social interaction?

To attempt to answer these questions, Willis headed out in search of Arizona’s ghost towns, abandoned relics of the mid-1800’s copper rush, and the hermits rumored to inhabit them. In our minds, recluses tend to fall into one of two categories — those with a tragic backstory, deserving of our compassion and understanding, and those who are perfectly content with their solitary lives, whose privacy we dare not interfere with. In the person of Virgil Snyder, Willis finds a soul who seems to exhibit both extremes. Everyone has a story; this is a cliché, but also a truth. Who we are now is the culmination of the events that have shaped our history. Virgil Snyder’s story is as touching and troubling as it is commonplace. Perhaps that is exactly what makes him so interesting.

His beard was shorter than in the photo and he wore a grey pullover that hung limp over his sleight frame. He wanted to know if I had brought him beer and when I told him I had, he said he knew he liked me from the moment he saw me. I told him about a woman I met in Cleator, who had told me she thought Virgil was more free than anyone she knew. He shrugged and said he couldn’t care less what others thought.

Mystery Man: Will Anyone Ever Know the Real Story Behind the Leatherman? (Jon Campbell, Village Voice, June 2015)

Hermits have always been considered mysterious, unpredictable, even dangerous. This speaks to our innate fear of difference. How can we trust someone who refuses to live a “normal” life? The reality, of course, is that those who live in “civilized” society, dressing to our standards and abiding by our ways, are no more or less likely to prove treacherous. Nevertheless, hermits, by wont of their unconventionality, continue to be figures of enduring fascination, attracting distrust and curiosity in equal measure.

Read an interview with Dan DeLuca about his book, The Old Leather man.

In this article, Jon Campbell meets a man obsessed with unknotting the riddle of one such character: the “Leatherman,” who, over a 30-year period in the mid-to-late 1800s, caused such a stir in the northeastern United States that stories and myths pertaining to him endure to this day. The Leatherman story reveals much about our need to understand the hermit’s motives and thoughts. What we don’t know about someone, we are likely to invent, and so it is proven here. Will we ever know the truth? Perhaps the real question at the heart of the Leatherman legend is why we remain so driven to find out.

Leatherman was frequently described in newspaper accounts as intelligent. His eyes would light up as if he understood what people said to him; he simply chose not to respond. Recently some researchers have posited the idea that Leatherman may have fallen somewhere along the autism spectrum. They cite as evidence his obvious discomfort around people, his rigid adherence to a schedule, his meticulous craftsmanship.

The Oracle of Oyster River (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, September 2018)

The subject of this piece by journalist Brian Payton is an extraordinary man named Charles Brandt. At the time of the writing of this piece, Brandt, a Catholic priest, had been living in his self-made hermitage off Canada’s Pacific Coast for nearly 50 years. Despite this isolation, Brandt kept in touch with the world on his own terms, working as a writer, naturalist, ornithologist, and book conservator. What makes this story especially poignant is that Brandt’s personal journey was very much inspired by the author of the first entry on this list, Thomas Merton — a beautiful circularity. So large has Merton’s influence been on Brandt that the latter even named his hermitage Merton House. The two men even met once, at the Abbey of Gethsemani, before Brandt settled into his island home.

It is fascinating to see that, unlike many of the other hermits on this list, Brandt managed to find a balance, enjoying a life of peace, meditation, and quiet reflection, while still engaging with society in vital ways. His work preserving treasured books, and seeking to preserve the natural ecology he treasured to an even greater extent, is as moving as it is inspiring.

“We really have to fall in love with the natural world”—this is Brandt’s refrain. To save something you need to love it, to love something you need to consider it sacred, he says. “Your wife or your children or the natural world. Only the sense of the sacred will save us.”

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Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, UK. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.

Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands