One frigid January night in 2002, while living a hermit’s life in my draughty shack nestled beside a ten-thousand acre tree farm, I turned on the radio at 2:30 AM to catch the CBC Radio rebroadcast of Radio Australia’s “The Religion Report.” I am a manic-depressive and sometimes keep strange hours in order to manage my mood swings. Staying up late to deprive myself of sleep shifts me (like everyone else) away from depression.
On that particular gloomy night, I was delighted to hear Rowan Williams, the then Anglican Archbishop of Wales, do an interview about the ancient Christian concept of what it means to be a religious hermit or anchorite. Badly in need of some cheering up, the unusual topic seemed wonderfully appropriate!
Williams laid out some of the simple yet powerful ideas used by those anchorites of old. First among these was the notion of “do the next thing.” That is, as you live your life, move from one simple act to the next, doing what you can. Do not get caught up in a lot of cogitation, just do what seems obvious and natural. Commit yourself to being yourself, here, in the place where you are.
Then we have the injunction to “pledge one’s body to the walls.” The walls, of course, being the walls of your monastic cell. Commit yourself to staying where you are.
Together these two “rules” add up to being who you are, when you are, where you are. They constitute the anchorite’s two guiding principles: fidelity and staying. Religious hermits evolved these ideas, yet they have obvious utility for stressed moderns as well.
Anchorites cultivate peace of mind by remaining “solitary in the crowd of our thoughts.” This is like meditation on the fly. In other words, stay focussed on one thing, stay in the here and now, and by simply doing the next thing, prevent unrelated thoughts from intruding or distracting you.
On those rare occasions when they leave their monastic cells or desert huts, anchorites take the position that being “solitary in a crowd is taking your cell with you.” Remain aloof from others while keeping the rest of the solitary mindset in place: as always, do the next thing, and commit yourself to being yourself, here, in the place where you are.