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By Fr Michael.

 

A hermitage can be where one person lives alone having limited contact with other people (the most common understanding of the term) or it can be several connected cells where monks or nuns live alone but have some common work and worship under the care of the same abbot or abbess (often as a dependency of a large monastery) or cells where everyone has their own rule and their own spiritual director but who encourage eachother and share in common worship and meals. These are the most ancient forms of monasticism, having been used in the desert, with “scetes” literally villages “streets” of hermits huts – sometimes having an abbot, sometimes not, but ultimately related to a bishop. The monasteries of the Scetis Valley (from where we derive the word 'skete' often used in Orthodoxy) were not like the large centralised communities that would come to define monasteries in the Middle Ages. Instead the Scetis monasteries were a collection of hermits who for the most part lived separately, each in their own cell, but who would come together for weekly prayers and holy days. These small cells could be close together or widely scattered, making their exact locations hard to find. It is also the form used by such famous British Church places such as Glendalough in Ireland where each monk has his own hut and farmlet yet all were connected and had a common abbot, chapel and goals. Those Celtic monks went to Scotland very early on and set up similar institutions 1500 years ago.The original hermits of the desert and even the monastics living on Iona and throughout Scotland, during the 4th to 9th centuries, would have lived what are to our eyes, frighteningly austere, uncomfortable lives. The Celtic monastic possibly had two robes and one pair of sandals/shoes. He lived in a bare stone cell with a fire place (but possibly precious little wood to burn in it). He might never have bathed, had no food that he had not grown or caught himself. How could he decorate a chapel without money to buy materials? Items probably occasionally came from the distant mother house and local rulers may have donated some money.

 

This then, is the monasticism of the early monastics in many areas of the British Isles. Harsh, prayer and work-filled, leaving the busy, distracting world far behind. Learned and able to lead the Church by example and teaching. There were, too, great coenobitic monasteries throughout the country, indeed the British Church was a heavily monastic Church throughout the first millennium.

What is a Hermitage?