Does She Live in a House in the Woods?
On hermit houses, suburban houses, and a homebody vocation
“Mom, can I be a hermit when I grow up?” my friend’s elementary-age daughter asked.
“My friend Heidi is a hermit! You should talk to her.”
The daughter’s eyes widened: “Does she live in a house in the woods?”
“No,” my friend replied, “she lives with her husband in Indianapolis.”
I mean, I wish I had a house out in the woods.
Maybe everybody does?
The image of “hermit” is hard to separate from the image of a hermitage: a little house somewhere far away. Thomas Merton was given a house in the woods near his monastery. Charles de Foucauld built one in the Algerian desert. Sarah Maitland bought a old cottage out on the moors of Scotland.
I spent the better part of the 2010s scheming about how to build a “tiny house” somewhere as a respite from the extroverted demands of parish ministry.
I actually lived in a tiny house for a year or so when I lived at Gould Farm in the late 1990s. It was hardly a “house” – more like a shack. But it was charming and it had a name: Crow’s Nest. There was no insulation, no bathroom, and no central heating. There was a cold-water spigot out back, electricity, and a cast iron woodstove for heat. I used a chamber pot or the woods out my back door, or the real bathroom and shower at my neighbor Amy’s house. I would get up in the middle of the night to throw another log on my woodstove, so my sheets were always flecked with wood chips. If I went away on vacation in the winter and didn’t ask someone to relight my stove before I came back, I would come home to a cold cabin. I was in my early twenties, so I loved it.
Adam and I lived in a very small house in DeKalb, Illinois (1200 square feet) for three years. Although it had plumbing, a kitchen, and central heating, it turned out to be too small for two people working at home in a pandemic. We bought a very different house here in Indianapolis and now find we have overcorrected the problem – we each have an office on either side of our ranch house but we also have too much house (4500 square feet)!
We live in a suburban-ish part of a city, not in the woods. But our neighborhood does have lots of big yards with big trees, so that’s lovely. We also live on a corner where three streets converge, two of them pretty busy, so that’s less lovely. There’s a busy golf course across the busiest street. There are no sidewalks. There are lots of stores, libraries, and restaurants, which is convenient, unlike the middle of a desert or a place remote to civilization. (I am, after all, just a part-time hermit.) There is a nice view of the sunset, over the golf course.
I do spend a lot of time in my house - I’m a homebody. For some people, I imagine that would feel confining or dull. For me, it means quiet, focus, and stability. I’ve grown more and more sensitive to my surroundings as I’ve gotten older. I sometimes wonder if the relentless extroversion of ten years of parish ministry fried my nervous system. Noise, crowds, and over-stimulation can become physically painful for me. I tend toward hermitude to help myself manage. On the other hand, I hope my sensitivity makes me a better listener, spiritual director, and writer.
Jesus often went out by himself to be alone, but most Biblical folks who experienced solitude did not do so by choice but were forced or fled some kind of danger: Hagar, Moses, Elijah, John of Patmos. Then, a couple hundred years after Jesus’s death, some Christians starting making a vocation out of solitude, by choice. First, St. Anthony and then hundreds of people who we now call the “desert mothers and fathers” went searching for purity of heart, a radically different way of life, and deep, deep prayer. I don’t feel able or called to abandon all of modern life for poverty and seclusion (I’m also happily married). But I am interested in prayer, sitting in the presence of God, focus, and perhaps, a way to manage this sensitivity situation I’m in, which can feel like a kind of disability but also like a vocation, if that makes any sense.
Recently, I read Katherine May’s first book The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and I was relieved to encounter another person who described how I often feel – “[I feel] a current that flows through all things. Everything is strung together like fairy lights. If that electricity sometimes overpowers me, then it also often lights my way, and joins me to the rest of the world” (p. 210).
My mother and my grandparents also tended toward the reclusive and my uncle still does. As I’ve grown older, I feel most often centered, happy, and like myself when I’m alone. I mean, I love people. One-on-one conversations are a delight for me. But I find my nervous system gets overwhelmed in crowds or when I spend a few hours in large groups of people. Even in church. I worshipped for Palm Sunday with the National Cathedral online and I was grateful. I’ve been investigating books and podcasts on “highly sensitive” people and “empaths” to try to understand this better.
A little house in the woods or some other quiet place closer to nature does sound amazing. But at the same time, I feel called to live my life in the present. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no way home. Home is the way.” Jesus invited his followers to “follow me,” not to find a destination. Or a certain kind of house. Jesus invites us to live abundantly from who we are, not what we have or don’t have.
It’s Holy Week. A weeklong, spiritual home we live in, once a year, as we too follow Jesus. A friend of mine told her congregation recently that all we have to do for Holy Week is walk with Jesus. No deeper meaning, discipline, or theology necessary. Just be with Jesus, witness with him, listen to him, make your home with him.
This is what I will be trying to do, too.
Blessed Holy Week and Happy Easter, friends.
MORE FROM HEIDI
“In recent years, I’ve become somewhat of an Easter Grinch.” - the light of Christ and unknowing as a form of belief, for The Christian Century’s Living By the Word column. My column for Easter 2 on faith and doubt will be posted online next week.
Everyday Connections: Reflections and Practices for Year A - My newest book! Reflect on your life and your relationship with God, grounded in the Bible passages for the week, or get some extra sermon inspiration. More than what is easy and obvious, I hope; meaty questions that require some chewing. For a free signed bookplate, head here.
New here? Want to know more? For more about me, my spiritual direction practice, or my other books and writings, check out my website.
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A wonderful read for opening my heart and mind during Holy Week. Thank you, friend.
Excellent timely newsletter. As much as I like Thomas Merton and your comments, I have trouble relating to Merton's "lifestyle" today. Your newsletter comes a little closer to where I'm at. Actually, a new book by Zena Hitz (A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life) maybe comes close as well. You two have similarities. Still have pleasant memories of our yoga practice in DeKalb and comparing stories about Univ of Chicago.