Laptops but no beards for new hermits in Italy
Tom Kington in Rome
Thursday March 13 2008
They no longer sit cross-legged in caves, on mountain tops or even in bustling city centres, but hermits are making a comeback in Italy after disappearing early in the last century, a study has claimed.
The archetypal long, unkempt beards are also out of style, the study's author discovered, since the majority of the 150 or so Catholic hermits now holed up in Italy in search of inner peace are women.
Barbara, a painter, and Valentina, a former modern art dealer, were among those interviewed by Isacco Turina, a sociologist at the University of Bologna, who tracked down 37 hermits, 21 of whom were women. Most were well educated and had decided on a life of prayer, penance and seclusion as they hit middle age.
The majority were former clergy or missionaries. "The number of women reflects the amount of ex-nuns who have sought out a degree of autonomy in life that they could not find before," said Turina.
Regarded as precursors of the monastic orders, hermits spread across Europe in the dark ages. The hermitic way almost disappeared a century ago before making a comeback in the 1960s, he said. Formal recognition of hermits was granted by the Vatican in 1983 to those who "devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world". Today bishops will consecrate new hermits in return for vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
"Not everyone applies for this licence from the bishop, but if you do, you also need to agree your new prayer regime with him," said Turina. "You then reduce your contacts with society, although you can meet people for spiritual dialogue."
Carlo, a psychiatrist turned hermit in Padua, receives 10 visitors a day.
Turina said abandoned churches were often taken over by hermits, with Tuscany a popular destination - although some were happy to live amid the "loneliness" of big cities. Ex-clergy could often bank on support from their diocese, while lay hermits could rely on pensions or handicraft work carried out between prayers.
"Some are equipped with internet, which doesn't necessarily disqualify you," said Turina. "It's like meeting people. You do it within a spiritual framework."
One American website, Raven's Bread, caters to hermits with a bulletin board, an online newsletter and reading list including the Rules for Hermits.