At 1:30 in the morning on April 4, 2013, Christopher Thomas Knight was arrested for burglary in a small cabin in the woods of central Maine. What at first appears as petty theft is in fact one of the most curious news stories of recent times — the finding of the legend known as “the north pond hermit.”
When Knight was apprehended, he not only had no criminal record — he had no record at all. When asked, “Where do you live?” he responded truthfully, “In the woods.” When asked “For how long?” he asked, “When did Chernobyl happen?” That would be 1986 — the year Christopher Thomas Knight, at the age of 20, left civilization for the woods.
The psychological profile of the man defied legal interpretation. For over the course of 30 years, this mysterious figure haunted the lives of the local community and pillaged their homes. He had literally committed thousands of thefts, subsisting all that time on the food and supplies of those still living an ordinary life. Despite all of this, he never harmed anyone, nor was he ever seen. He was truly a shadowy figure who, inspiring fear and paranoia, seemed to defy the human possibilities of enduring life apart from any modern support — and more importantly, without any human relationships.
The Christian Concept of Hermit
Despite the temptation to psychologically probe the why behind Christopher Thomas Knight, our interest is more to the question of how he was designated a hermit — and better put, how radically contrary he is to the true vision of a hermit. In the Christian tradition, the hermit is not one who flees from relationships but flees for relationship. Knight then is a powerful case study of the human reality radically inverted — and one that does not constitute a hermit in the true sense of the word. Hermits are the most relational of humans, because they leave civilization for a deeper encounter and more profound opening to the living God. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes:
“No one is less forgotten than a hermit. It seems as if no moan could appeal to the hearts of his fellows more effectively than by leaving them and going to God. Therefore, the founders of religious orders come from solitude; in caves and walled hiding places they are found after years by a wandering hunter and brought before kings, radiating a solitude that they can never again lose.”
The word “hermit,” derived from the Greek adjective ἔρημος (erēmos), means “solitary, lonely, desolate or uninhabited.” In its substantive form, it is often rendered “wilderness or desert.” Replete throughout God’s salvific preparation of the Old Covenant, the notion of “the lonely place” is recast and transformed by the lived experience of Jesus — as well as those called to follow after him.
It begins with a man named John who comes from the “wilderness (erēmos) of Judea,” proclaiming the Messiah (Mt 3:1). After Jesus is baptized by John, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness (erēmos) (Mk 1:12). Later on, throughout his public ministry, we see him regularly depart to the erēmos, to pray in quiet union with the Father (cf. Mk 1:35; Mt 14:13; Lk 4:42). Furthermore, when his Apostles first feel crushed under the weight of their apostolic mandate, he calls them to join him in the erēmos: “And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while’” (Mk 6:31). As Christ begins to foretell the sacramental institution of the Eucharist, he contrasts how though their Fathers ate manna in the wilderness (erēmos), they will eat the bread from heaven (cf. Jn 6:31). And Divine Revelation closes with the mysterious image of the woman who “fled into the wilderness (erēmos), where she has a place prepared by God” (Rev 12:6).
God’s self-disclosure in the Word of God intimately involves the erēmos — that lonely and solitary place most often found in the wilderness. Jesus, though not strictly speaking a hermit, is in fact eremitical, i.e. one who lives a hermit’s life. This means that all those who follow Jesus, those who pattern their existence after his own, would then have to embrace, in a concretely lived way, the life of a hermit.
Solitude and Friendship as Dimensions of Christian Existence
The essence of this eremitical dimension of the Christian life is called solitude. We are mandated by Christ to solitude, an aloneness with him — meaning that everyone who takes up the enterprise of Christian discipleship, is to live out solitude. And these vary according to our state in life: A lay person immersed in the world of family life and occupational concerns is just as called as a monk or nun living out their religious state of life in total separation from the world. The distinction here is how solitude is lived — not if it is lived. What distinguishes this dimension of every Christian life is our state in life, namely, how we stand in relationship to God. Normatively, the lay state of life invites not material solitude, but a spiritual form. In contrast, the religious state calls for not only spiritual solitude, but a material one as well. Religious are then hermits par excellence (in this broad sense of the term). Priests, who stand in a medial state of life between the two, live in the paradoxical tension of striving for both.
With this being said, the purpose of the Christian life is not to withdraw into solitary union with God apart from other created relationships. This would be the path of mysticisms, such as Buddhism or Neo-Platonism. When Plotinus concludes that human life culminates in the monos pros monon (being alone with the Alone), he had something radically different in mind. Solitude in the Christian life is grounded, like all things, in the Incarnation — that event of God becoming man, becoming creation, becoming like us. In this sense, the eremitical dimension of the Christian life (which we call solitude) has to be tethered to another dimension — that of friendship. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his treatment on charity, follows an Aristotelian line and confirms that human life is impossible without friendship. Thus, if the Christian life is a human life (the fullness of human life), then it, by necessity, would require friendship. As Aquinas says, friendship is mutual benevolence arising from the communication of goods. We need friendship in this life to arrive at the heights of holiness; for it is a radically communitarian project (hence the existence of the Church). Just as friendship is in essence a shared life, so too is everything in the Christian life already shared. Thus, we can conclude with Joseph Ratzinger: “Faith by its inmost essential nature involves other people: it is a breaking out of the isolation of my ego that is its own illness.”
Three Unexpected Conclusions
There is a final piece for consideration, one which carrying the highest priority and greatest value, orients the two dimensions of the Christian life in tandem: namely, that our relationship with God is friendship in Christ. His final words at the Last Supper, summarize the form, dignity, and essence of the Christian life: “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). Both friendship with created persons and solitude in person exist for the singular purpose of friendship with Jesus Christ. His call, a supernatural and unbelievable invitation, occurs within the structures of human existence, i.e. within the dimensions of solitude and friendship in the world. It is to this mystery that much of our heartache as Christians finds its source; for if we attempt to live a Christian life by straying from this, we are destined for a broken heart. From this we can draw three rather unexpected conclusions regarding the harmony of solitude and friendship.
1. Solitude with Christ preconditions our friendships. In his instruction on priestly formation, St. John Paul II makes this adamantly clear:
The ability to handle a healthy solitude is indispensable for caring for one’s interior life. Here we are speaking of a solitude filled with the presence of the Lord who puts us in contact with the Father, in the light of the Spirit. In this regard, concern for silence and looking for places and times of “desert” are necessary for the priest’s permanent formation, whether in the intellectual, spiritual or pastoral areas. In this regard too, it can be said that those unable to have a positive experience of their own solitude are incapable of genuine and fraternal fellowship.
The same applies for every state of life. The ordinary mode of friendship, when elevated supernaturally in Christ, requires a kind of solitary foundation in the encounter with Christ Jesus. In other words, we cannot be with others in a truly Christian way unless we can be with Christ — and that means being with him in his solitary search for the heart of the Father.
Lent is a season to draw back from worldly preoccupations and enter again into the recesses of the heart, the place where God alone dwells.
2. Solitude with Christ disillusions our friendships. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes, this union of solitude and friendship create a kind of challenge and counter to the relative ease of natural human relationality:
Jesus came among us not primarily to establish easy-going human fellowship, the sort that produces warm feelings of acceptance and belonging; he came among us to redeem us from sin, an operation that cannot avoid inflicting pain. Friendship in the truth means never forgetting the ultimate goal of our life by basking in the enjoyable illusion of present security and mutual human support. Jesus can support us as our friend only insofar as his help moves our life towards his Father.
Something changes when we encounter Christ in solitude — we encounter ourselves, and in this, all our limitations. As the novelist Michael O’Brien writes: “In solitude the blur of safe indistinction becomes sharp and dangerous identity.”
3. Solitude in Christ authenticates our friendships. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, “But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.” Woven into the best of intentions in the quest for true friendship is in fact in inordinate desires to be loved. Being drawn away from friendship and into the lonely place in Christ creates the space needed for true reflection and brutal self-honesty. Otherwise we will fall victim to the illusion that love is an identity into one, instead of a communion of two persons.
When the grounds of friendship are solitude in Christ, even drastic measures can be entirely reasonable. What we speak of here is the human responsibility to reality, which bears upon every human conscience, becoming a mandate of every human relationship. To this Dietrich von Hildebrand speaks profoundly:
True fidelity towards a person may on occasion impose on us the duty to withdraw altogether from contact with him. In the case where he would constitute a threat to our fidelity to God, and when we on the other hand feel powerless to help him, our breaking off relations with him is still consistent with our true fidelity towards him: it is destined to promote his spiritual good as well as our own, and is therefore involved in our very love for him so far as love in a higher and ultimate sense implies, above all, responsibility.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold?” (Matthew 11:7).
These words of Christ, addressed to those who followed John into the wilderness, are likewise addressed to Christopher Thomas Knight, the hermit of North Pond, Maine. His answer we will likely never know. But what about us? Will we go into the wilderness? If so, what will we behold? In the end, the vitality of our Christian faith depends on this question: do we truly have the courage to step into the erēmos with Christ, allowing him to reevaluate our every human friendship?
Lent is a season to draw back from worldly preoccupations and enter again into the recesses of the heart, the place where God alone dwells. It is a season of invitation to solitude with Christ; to re-found our every relationship upon him; and in doing so, to be free of everything not of him. This is the heart of Christian asceticism — the renunciation necessary to make space again for the solitary presence of the living God. And as Eastertide draws near, may we rediscover a profound and paradoxical Christian truth — that the greatest gift we can give our friends is our solitude with the Risen Lord.