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Light Rafts for Flagging Spirits | Vol 16
Solitude, alone-ness, and reclusive inklings loom in this still-strange, liminal time/space, as we mark the 1st anniversary of COVID life. Here are 10 helpings of light + grace + hope for the journey.
A close friend recently asked me for a list of “meaningful reads”—books that might distract, preoccupy, or even delight a nervous consciousness, but are something more than mere frivolity. I love a good book list, so I dove in, thinking of the titles I’ve read in recent years (and even longer ago than that) that have been good company in hard times. The curation quickly filled up with favorites that are particular to my friend’s interests and mine: a soupçon of fiction, lots nonfiction (including a ton of memoir, because it’s my favorite genre to read and to write), essays, and the wondrously amorphous “narrative and/or creative nonfiction.”
Into that last category falls The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel—a book I devoured a few years back. Revisiting the story of Christopher Knight aka “The North Pond Hermit”—a man who, in 1986 at the age of 22, left his Massachusetts home and traveled to Kennebec County, Maine, where he walked into the woods and disappeared, living as a true hermit, without any contact with other humans (but for the items he purloined from neighboring cabins) for 27 years—stoked my nearly lifelong fascination with all things hermitic.
Since I was a tween, perhaps hearing bits of the legend of Connecticut’s Revolutionary War-era “lady hermit” Sarah Bishop or listening to my great aunt the nun, Sister Mary Charles (who lived in a cavernous stone convent) talk about the anchoress St. Julian of Norwich who literally was walled up inside a church, or my preoccupation with Grizzly Adams thanks to the 1970s television series, tales of outliers and dropouts, the weird and the wonderful, reclusive souls who’ve chosen to live apart from other people for one reason or another (or a complex assemblage of needs, wants, and compulsions, spiritual and otherwise) have occupied a special wing of my imagination. And, truth be told, I have not-so-latent reclusive/hermitic tendencies myself that only have been enlivened by nearly a year in strict lockdown.
Now, with Lent upon us and what is usually for me an annual sprint of self-examination, as we’re rounding the final turn into the first anniversary of COVID’s seemingly interminable Plague Year, I have ample time to take a leisurely 40-day stroll through the state of my eternal union with the One. All of the above have led me to this hermit-themed dispatch, which I hope will meet some of you where you live, others where you might need or want to go, and that you might find a healthy distraction if not delight itself in the offerings to follow.
But before we head farther into the eremi(s)tic, I have an addendum to the aforementioned reading list: I forgot to include one of my favorite books of all time, Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm. It’s a slim volume most can read in a single sitting and that has been a perennial companion to me since I first picked up a copy at a used bookstore when I was in seminary half a lifetime ago. While not strictly a hermitic, in Holy the Firm Dillard, bless her, recalls the season she (from 1975 to 1977) in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest overlooking the Puget Sound that housed "one enormous window, one cat, one spider, and one person." If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s a great time to grab a copy during this eclesial season of self-reflection.
And as you enter a wilderness, in whatever way you might—in physical or emotional solitude, whether the Lenten season means something to you or not—may you always have all the grace and light you need for the journey. ♰
1. Two Years at Sea: Jake Williams, Hermit of the Highlands | Scotland
A link to The Guardian newspaper’s photo essay, “Splendid Isolation: In Search of Scotland’s Hermits,” that my dear spiritual director, Andō, included in her Silentium newsletter this week sent me down a eremitical rabbit hole where I happily discovered a hermit from Aberdeenshire, Scotland named Jake Williams and the beautiful “slow cinema” film depicting his life, 2011’s Two Years At Sea.
The film is a wordless meditation on light and shadow, literally and figuratively, as filmmaker Ben Rivers’ sets his wind-up Bolex camera loaded with 16mm black-and-white film (which he later developed in the kitchen sink of his London flat) down and lets Mr. Williams go about his business, moving in and out of frame and focus like a cross between a contemplative Hobbit and a lanky gnome. The combination of the physical film itself with all its imperfections, inconsistencies and scratches, the ineffable subject himself, and a dash of magical realism makes the movie unlike any other I’ve seen. It’s not for everyone, but if turning the lights down, snuggling up somewhere comfy, and breathing for 90 minutes while the quirky Highland hermit does the heavy lifting sounds appealing in any way, I’d encourage you to give it a whirl.
Here’s a bit more about Mr. Williams. He sings in the first video and talks about living off the grid, deep in the Scottish wilderness, in the second.
2. A 21st-Century Hermit: Rachel Denton | Nottingham, UK
A former Carmelite nun, Rachel Denton left her position as a head teacher of a school in Cambridge, England nearly 20 years ago to pursue the a eremitical life, taking vows in 2006 as a canonical hermit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nottingham. She turned the end unit on a former council estate (read: public housing) into a hermitage she named St. Cuthbert’s House (after the patron saint of hermits). There, she grows food in her garden, raises chickens, supports herself with a calligraphy business, and despite her solitude, connects with the world via social media.
In 2015, doctors diagnosed Rachel with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer, from which she since has recovered. TBTG.
View Rachel’s calligraphy (with many greeting cards for sale and private commissions available) HERE.
3. Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs performed by Leontyne Price
If you go far enough down a digital rabbit hole, you may find treasure. Case in point: While researching one of the hermits herein, I stumbled across these gorgeous recordings of soprano Leontyne Price singing Hermit Songs—a 10-song cycle written by the late Samuel Barber based on the anonymous writings of Irish monks from the 8th and 13th centuries.
Hermit Songs premiered in 1953 at the Library of Congress with composer/conductor/pianist Barber himself on piano and Price singing. The songs, with titles such as "At St Patrick’s Purgatory,” “The Desire for Hermitage,” and “The Monk and His Cat” (translated by W. H. Auden himself) are wonder-filled.
4. Sarah Bishop: The hermit of Connecticut’s West Mountain
I have only the vaguest of recollections of Sarah Bishop from my childhood in Connecticut, but there’s a whisper of her in there—a flash of recognition from the book stacks in Kay Avenue School where I seem to recall Scott O’Dell’s novel based on her life being on display near his more famous historical fiction work, The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Bishop was a very real person, a hermit who lived in a cave a few towns north of where I grew up, in the years following the Revolutionary War. The cave is still there…
I was reminded of Bishop’s story earlier this month when I read the excellent essay, “She wants to be alone” by Rhian Sasseen in AEON about the (mostly overlooked) history of women hermits and/or woman adventurers.
“It was this, a life lived under the eyes of men, their needs and their demands, that led Sarah Bishop, the hermit of Connecticut’s West Mountain, to the cave she called home,” Sasseen surmises. The writer Samuel Goodrich wrote about Bishop in 1856, describing her thusly: “Sarah Bishop was, at the period of my boyhood, a thin, ghostly old woman, bent and wrinkled, but still possessing a good deal of activity. She lived in a cave, formed by nature, in a mass of projecting rocks that overhung a deep valley or gorge in West Mountain.”
In Bishop, Sasseen sees a more nefarious and ubiquitous women’s story:
Bishop’s hermitdom, [Goodrich] goes on to observe, could be traced back to the Revolutionary War, when she was a young woman. During the war, the story goes, her father’s house was burnt down by the passing British troops and she, as has happened to women since time immemorial, was raped by a soldier.
All we know of Bishop comes from Goodrich, the last in a long line of men who defined the course of her life for her. For his muse, Goodrich allots a few pretty stanzas, some paragraphs in the memoir devoted to his own long life; he calls her the ‘nun of the mountain’, a nice term for a woman whose body was violated in the name of her country’s freedom. If Bishop kept a diary, perhaps it would have gone like this: Don’t tread on me.
Next time I’m home in Connecticut, on the other side of this Plague Year, I’m going to make a point of making a pilgrimage to Bishop’s cave in Ridgefield.
More about Sarah Bishop, “American Hermitess,” HERE.
5. “Urban Hermit” and caretaker of Florence’s English Cemetery| Italy
Watch this short film and imagine what you think the “urban hermit” Julia Bolton Holloway’s backstory might be. I bet you anything it’s not what you’re expecting.
Originally from Sussex, England, Bolton Holloway immigrated to the United States when she was 16 years old, earned her bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University for her bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. A prolific academic author, she has written and edited books about Julian of Norwich, the revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Dante, Chaucer, women pilgrims and mystics, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.
She raised three sons, taught at Quincy University, Princeton University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was Director of Medieval Studies. She took early retirement to enter an Anglican convent, is now a Catholic hermit in Florence, Italy, where she directs an ecumenical polyglot library and is custodian of the Swiss-owned 'English' Cemetery where Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walter Savage Landor, Frances Trollope and many famous others, particularly slavery Abolitionists, are buried.
She also speaks nine languages. What an absolutely fascinating human.
6. The “Snow Guardian” | Forty Years Alone in the Snow | Colorado
I especially love this story about Colorado’s billy barr because #science.
This guy’s a gem. How did he end up where he is doing what he does? Well, according to this terrific profile in The Atlantic, “The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science”:
In 1973 Barr had dropped out of college and made his home an abandoned mining shack at the base of Gothic Mountain, a 12,600-foot stone buttress. The cold winds blew through the shack’s wood slat walls as if they didn’t exist; he shared the bare dirt floor with a skunk and pine marten, his only regular company for much of the year. Barr had moved from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains precisely because of the solitude, but he couldn’t escape boredom. Especially that first winter. So he measured snow levels, animal tracks, and in spring the first jubilant calls of birds returning. He filled a notebook with these observations; then another notebook. This has continued now for 44 years.
7. Felicity the Hermit: Choosing Eremitism in Midlife | Maryland
More than a decade ago, Regina Kreger made a life change. She went from being a bureaucrat to cooking for the Benedictine monks at St.Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C. Two years ago, she made an even more significant life shift when she took her first vows as a hermit and a new religious name: Felicity.
By the way, the title of Thomas Merton’s book A Vow of Conversation is a send-up of the expression Felicity mentions at the beginning of the short film: conversatio morum. In St. Benedict’s peculiar Latin, it is the name of the second vow Benedictines make, to a “conversion of life,” which encompassed being if not silent, at least being lean of expression. That was something “Father Louis” wrestled with as a writer and communicator who was trying to communicate to the world from his hermitage in Kentucky, a struggle he illuminates in the book. It’s a more obscure Merton text, but one that presciently speaks to the tension of being at once separated from and with other people.
8. Julian of Norwich: And All Shall Be Well
“Mother Julian,” the medieval English mystic and hermit or anchorite who lived during the time of the plague (aka “The Black Death”) has much to teach us today about self-isolation and how to stay centered amidst chaos.
She may have lived in the 14th century, but Julian of Norwich’s message and mysticism could not be more relevant than they are right now
The Friends of Julian of Norwich organization in the UK is offering a free, six-part Lenten Zoom series on the anchoress and the new book about her life by Sheila Upjohn, The Way of Julian of Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through Lent
9. Yeats turns his imagination to the hermitical: “Meru”
In his poem named for one of India’s holy Himalayan peaks, William Butler Yeats summons the hermit but also echoes of Saint Paul, considered the first Christian hermit who, according to Saint Jerome, greeted a visitor with the words, “Tell me…how fares the human race? If new roofs be risen in the ancient cities, whose empire is it that now sways the world?”
Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man's life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality:
Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!
Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,
Caverned in night under the drifted snow,
Or where that snow and winter's dreadful blast
Beat down upon their naked bodies, know
That day bring round the night, that before dawn
His glory and his monuments are gone.
— By William Butler Yeats, 1934
10. Lenten Reading: Whose voices do you take with you into the desert?
Because another friend asked about Lenten companions and what I might recommend reading this year, here are a few recommendations, including the one that’s by my side even as I type these words. 💀
Click on the image above for the list of books (in print) or HERE:
That wondrous English poet/author/professor/priest Malcolm Guite’s Word in the Wilderness has been a Lenten friend for a few years now, as have Nouwen's Lenten reader and Merton’s classic Desert. I have enjoyed John Moses’ The Desert: An Anthology for Lent and Madeleine L’Engle Walking on Water, while not a specifically Lenten-themed compendium, is IMHO perrrrrfect for this season. Were You There is one I don’t have in my library but that I’ve just ordered, as it is a devotional for Lent based on African-American spirituals and written by Luke A. Powery, dean of the chapel and professor of homiletics at Duke University.
There are two Lenten companions in the list above that don’t come up in BookShop.org, where I try to point my readers because it allows you to order your book directly from a local, independent bookseller rather than The Rainforest of Voldemort, which helps keep our local purveyors of literature in business. They’re easy enough to find on that other site, tho.
The first is my teacher Father Richard Rohr’s Lenten devotional, Wondrous Encounters. I often prefer to listen to Richard’s books rather than or in addition to reading them, and this book is available via (shoot, let’s pretend it’s not a subsidiary of The Rainforest of Voldemort for a moment, mkay?) Audible, and it’s narrated by Father John Quigley, not Father Richard. But still…it’s a lovely Lenten companion.
Second is an online resource for LGBTQI+ folx from The Human Rights Campaign, which you can find HERE. It hasn’t been updated since 2019, but Lent is Lent and it’s a good resource. While I am not shocked, I was still greatly disappointed to discover there is no Lenten reader/meditations/devotional book specifically geared toward the LGBTQI+ audience. (Let’s say there isn’t one yet, because my posse of queer writer friends are coming for it. In fact, if you’re an acquisitions editor reading this and interested, hit me up at email@example.com.)
This year, my companion of choice is the Lenten devotional Remember Your Death: Memento Mori by Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Pauline sister from the order of Figlie di San Paolo (Daughters of St. Paul). It is decidedly not my usual fair for this season and that is precisely why I chose it. That and it’s got a very groovy, simple black-and-white design with a skull on the cover.
I knew it was the right choice when I opened the book last week to read the Ash Wednesday entry and it was accompanied on the facing page by the 1797 engraving below by Philippe Criere (after Jusepe de Ribera’s famous painting of the same name): Saint Paul the Hermit.
In Remember Your Death, Sister Theresa encourages the reader to focus on confronting our deaths as a vehicle for living fully every day, whether the season is Lent or not. As we’ve reached the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve felt like death is something I, at the age I’ve recently reached, should be able to look straight in the eyes. I’m working on it. More on that some other time.
Until then, stay safe and alert and kind. Wear a mask. Check on your neighbors.
If you felt like sharing this dispatch or the Look for the Light site with friends or showing it some love on the socials, I’d be much obliged.
Thank you for reading. #LuxInTenebrisLucet