Those of you who know and love Athanasius’s Life of St Anthony, whose feastday this is, have probably spent a moment or two wondering about the hermit vocation. Athanasius’s text is much more multi-faceted than at first appears, but his enthusiasm for Anthony is infectious. St Benedict was well aware of its seductiveness. His ambivalence about the eremitical life is a staple of novitiate conferences, for authority is always nervous about those who wish to be alone with God before they have learned how to be alone with God among other people. The only real hermits I have known (i.e. recognized as such by the Church) have been wonderful community people, who brought — or bring — to their solitude a great love of humanity.
That, of course, is the point. A hermit who hates people or wants to get away from them because he dislikes the messiness of ordinary life is a contradiction in terms. We cannot love God unless we also love those created in his image and likeness.
Even after a lifetime in the monastery, there is in most Benedictines a slight regret that we are not called to be hermits. We must go on as coenobites, because we need other people to keep us on the right track; but we honour and value those who ‘sally forth, fighting-fit, from the battle-rank of the community’ to the solitary combat of the desert, knowing that their prayer and sacrifice help uphold the world.