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Hermits Are Fashionable Again -- And They Aren't All Solitary

11/01/2013 05:18 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Hermits are apparently becoming fashionable again. A study by I. Turina at the University of Bologna shows that the number of hermits in Europe is growing each year. In Italy alone more than 2000 exist now. Partly this is because the definition of a hermit is being modernized so there is now an 'urban hermit' and even a 'part-time' hermit. Traditional hermits living in remote places are still few.

Mountains are famous for their hermits as they are considered spiritual places that create a union between earth and sky. Some hermits, such as the Hermits of Saint Romulado deemed mountains necessary for contemplation because they inspire mental elevation, and are removed from the daily commerce of life.

Contrary to the stereotype, hermits don't always have to be solitary. St. Francis of Assisi stipulated that hermits could live in groups. In fact the etymology of the word hermit does not actually refer to being solitary. It is derived from the Greek work 'eremos' meaning 'wilderness or desert". The concept of desert is significant to hermits the world over as a symbolic reminder of our 'desert fathers'. The first hermits like St. Anthony in the desert established the virtues of hermitic practice. These practices include a life devoted to contemplation, study of plants and nature, eating of found foods, etc. and are at odds with the values of today.

I had the great fortune of meeting a traditional hermit in his hand-hewn temple, perched on a cliff top at 1124 meters altitude. As a young man first seeing the ancient ruin of S. Leonardo, which was a pile of stones overgrown with vines, he thought: "Why not bring it back to its ancient splendour?" And so began the quest that consumed the rest of Padre Pietro's life.

Strangely he received only a little support from the Cappuccini religious order of which he is part. With only a piece of bread (and sometimes not even that) and his own hands, he began this colossal reconstruction. He spent decades carrying building materials on his back up the mountains, where he lived in a makeshift habitation. Now in his mid-eighties, his work is complete. He has built a large church with 'gothic' style arches, a high bell tower, accommodation, and gardens. Given the circumstances one can't quibble about the architectural style that is more a unique construction than an accurate restoration.

The gardens are the most captivating aspect and it is tempting to describe them as an equivalent to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These tiny wedges of earth are built into the side of the rock face, high above a gorge and are retained with small stonewalls. When golden sun floods the flanks of the mountains while the cavern below is swathed in shadow of the abyss there's a sensation of being transported to another world. These gardens were cultivated as of 600 A.D., and the building was constructed on the site of a Pagan, pre-Roman shrine. In our increasingly homogeneous western culture, mountains are crucially important for often being the last outposts where we can live history and encounter modest yet heroic individualism.

From his lofty crag Pietro keeps traditions alive, using snails to cure illness, gathering wild plants, etc. and he calls his home by its Roman name 'Golubro'. He believes the tragedy of life is that consumerism has destroyed our awareness of austerity and frugality that were virtues we learnt through centuries, and that helped to make every day a gift. In contrast today consumer society is celebrated, and he believes it has become a virtue because it serves the system. Man has been paid in commodities, in comfort, but lost the greater part of life.

Lets hope the growing number of hermits implies a successor will be found when Pietro is no longer. Meanwhile Pietro offers you this 'recipe' for one of his favourite meals and for more recipes see: www.sibillinimountainhealth.com. In December, I will report on Pietro's anti-consumer Christmas celebration.

HERMIT'S SOUP

Pick a few of every kind of vegetable that is available in your garden. Chop them and put them all together in a pot with a few centimetres of water and some fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary. Cover and boil. When a little softened, mash slightly with a fork. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and add salt and pepper.