Daily Archives: 15 November 2008

On the Vital Role of Hermits

The latest volume (#28) of Buddhist-Christian Studies, which has just gone online at Project MUSE (subscription required) contains a couple of anniversary memorials to Thomas Merton, who died in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. (It also contains several papers from a panel on the notable contributions of Masao Abe to Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue.)

Buddhist-Christian dialogue seems awfully passé to me in an era when positive dialogue seems all too scarce among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, on the one hand, and between crusading atheists and theists of all stripes, on the other. But I do appreciate Thomas Merton’s appreciation of the hermit life—the need to get away from it all—even though he may have been one of the most outspoken Trappists who ever lived (as my father is one of the more talkative Quakers I’ve ever met). The editor of Buddhist-Christian Studies, however, thinks Merton ignored one vital class of hermits (p. viii, n. 5):

Merton’s model of the hermit life does not exhaust the phenomenon within Western Christianity. Historically speaking, the hermit life was embraced by far more people than the limited number of professed monks whose spiritual growth had taken them beyond the life of the coenobium. For example, hermit shrine keepers were numerous throughout Christian cultures for centuries; most of these were simple laity without whom many pilgrimage sites would simply not have existed, and their identity has not yet found a modern voice. The massively popular pilgrimage churches of traditional Catholicism had at their heart the hermit-sacristan who tended the lamps and swept the floors. The professed hermit monk, the monastic hermit order, and the shrine hermit all found expression in the legal and the architectural boundaries of medieval and early modern societies.

Perhaps lay bloggers, photographers, and Wikipedists can be considered the hermit-sacristans of this information age, quietly tending our quirky little shrines that attract pilgrims who seek to escape the self-referential obsessions of the cloistered academies and the hourly tolling of alarm bells from the cathedrals of the major media.

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