Hermits in the 1990's and 2000's: Surveys
In the September 1994 issue of the American Catholic magazine America, writer Karen Karper published an article titled "By No Worldly Logic: To Be a Hermit in the 1990's."1 In the context of the magazine, the article intends to address the topic of Catholic hermits. Karen Karper herself was a Poor Clare nun in a cloistered community for thirty years before becoming a hermit in West Virginia. She is now Karen Fredette, married and residing in North Carolina, where she and her husband Paul edit Raven's Bread, a newsletter for hermits.
In 1992, during her stay in West Virginia solitude, Karper conducted a survey of hermits.
Through the most rudimentary system of networking, I obtained names and addresses of men and women hermits in 35 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, as well as in Mexico, the Philippines, France, the British Isles and Australia. I sent a simple questionnaire to 84 of these, to which 64 responded with their unique and fascinating stories
Of the 64 respondents, 49 were women and 15 were men. Twenty women and ten men were members of religious communities, while twenty-two were former religious. Hence 52 of her 64 respondents were professed religious. Of the former religious, only one was a male, suggesting to Karper that nuns expressing a desire for eremitical life were essentially expelled from their orders, while men were not [witness the case of Thomas Merton in the 1950's and sixties]. Of the professed religious, the majority had been or were Franciscans, followed by Carmelites, Camaldolese, and others. Additionally, nine hermits had originally been secular clergy. This totals one short of the sum of respondents.
Two-thirds of the current members of orders were subsidized in their eremitical lives, but the others were self-supporting. These had simple part-time jobs "ranging from bookbinding and forest management to proofreading and sewing." A number received government retiree pensions (social security) or other retirement benefits.
All appear to desire close relations to religious communities or parishes, and twelve had been "publicly recognized as professed diocesan hermits." Of course, the age-old skepticism on the part of ecclesiastical authorities remains, despite Canon 603 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law recognizing "eremitic or anchoritic life." "My research (and personal experience)," writes Karper, "has shown that some -- perhaps many -- bishops are unwilling to accept such responsibilities and refuse to allow men or women aspiring to a canonically recognized eremitic state to make public profession of such within their jurisdiction."
Hermits in the 2000's
In 2001, Karen and Paul Fredette surveyed readers of their newsletter with a more detailed survey,2 the results of which they have published with useful respondent comments over successive issues. The following information only records the initial impressions and data.
In contrast to the scope of the 1992 survey, they mailed nearly six-hundred copies in May 2001, with a 22% return rate by August, or 132. The initial compilation of data is based on 122 responses processed.
Of the 122, 86 were women and 36 men, or about two-thirds women. About the same percentage came from the United States, with other respondents from Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, and Poland. Most of the respondents were mature, as this table shows:
Likewise, their decision-making took place in mature years. A quarter of respondents began an eremitic life in their fifties; a smaller percentage started in their forties. Most considered their health to be good or excellent, and cited this as a positive factor in choosing solitude. Though many lived in rural settings, the majority described their environs as urban or subsuburban, with a few in poor inner city areas. Others lived in religious communities, and only two of the 122 respondents described their setting as wilderness. This suggests that proximity to ecclesiastical resources may have been an overarching concern of respondents. Of the group surveyed, the overwhelming majority were not only Christian but "high church": Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran. Of course, the Protestant tradition has little history of or sympathy with hermits.
Much of the rest of the survey concerned itself with religious affiliation and canonical status. Twenty percent of the Catholic respondents had in fact gained canonical status for their eremitical life. Most respondents followed traditional structures of prayer and liturgy, and reported dealings with religious authorities as problematic. Interestingly, 22 of the 122 respondents were married.
Finances are always a concern. While a third of respondents received church-related income, two-thirds worked at home. Most had modest incomes. Half owned computers and most enjoyed players and radios.
The Fredettes conclude that many are being called to a life of solitude and are
responding in whatever fashion is available to them. New lifestyles are emerging without significant support from leadership other than that of the Spirit speaking in individual hearts and souls.
- Karper, Karen. "By No Worldly Logic: To Be a Hermit in the 1990's." America, vol. 171, issue 6, September 10, 1994. p. 20.
- Raven's Bread, vol. 5, no. 3, August 2001.