According to the Evangelists, the narrative Jesus charges his followers to love one another. He tells them that the sole measure by which they will earn a heavenly reward is the extent to which they provide for the less fortunate. The primary obligation of the faithful Christian then is to demonstrate his love of God and fellow man by improving the lot of other human beings (Matthew 25:31-46). The Roman Catholic Church has codified these instructions into two lists, traditionally called the Corporeal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy. 1
Practicing one of the oldest forms of Christian monasticism, an anchorite removes himself from society in order to pursue solitary communion with the divine. This paper asks, “Is such eremitic withdrawal a legitimate response to the teachings and example of the narrative Jesus?” If the goal of Christianity is in fact the death of self in service and love of others, how can physical separation with the goal of personal spiritual development be justified?
This paper begins with a historical analysis, which defines the problem and establishes a brief history of early Christian anchoritic monasticism and the development of Christian contemplative prayer. It continues with a comparative analysis of the two primary motivations for withdrawal: the desire to move to union with divinity, and the desire to escape from the world. The third section is a critical analysis, outlining the main arguments in favor of monasticism from a cenobitic perspective; most of which are applicable to an anchoritic vocation. A second section of historical analysis follows, which addresses the attraction of wilderness to the anchorite. The penultimate section is a critical analysis of the twentieth century's most eloquent hermit's writings on solitude. The last section is an apologetic analysis, addressing the arguments of one of monasticism's most respected detractors.
The paper concludes that no eremitic withdrawal can simultaneously be both total and authentically Christian. Successful and genuine Christian anchoritism always involves a “return” to involvement in communal life where the grace and love of God, experienced in solitude, are mediated to others. While the nature of this return is malleable and may not be a physical one, it must exist.
1Corporeal: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead. Spiritual: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.