Job opportunity: hermit wanted - friendly recluses only please

Alpine outpost requires caretaker and sacristan who doesn’t mind hosting hordes of tourists

The Hermitage of St Verena, near the small Swiss city of Solothurn, is searching for a new hermit. Photograph: Wall Street Journal

The Hermitage of St Verena, near the small Swiss city of Solothurn, is searching for a new hermit. Photograph: Wall Street Journal

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 12:26

Switzerland’s Katholisches Kirchenblatt, a Catholic weekly, recently carried an unusual job ad: “Are you an idealistic, religious person who enjoys meeting people?”

The ad was placed by the small Alpine city of Solothurn. But Solothurn isn’t looking for a new social worker or priest. It is searching for a hermit.

The town’s hermitage, built into the rock face of a striking gorge, has been empty since March, when its resident hermit, the first woman to hold the post since 1442, resigned after five years.

Her complaint: People. The constant stream of tourists to the hermitage and neighbouring chapel was just too much to handle, according to the city.

This time around, Solothurn has updated the job description. “Along with acting as caretaker and sacristan, responsibilities include interaction with the many visitors,” the ad warns potential applicants.

“There’s a bit of a discrepancy between the job title of hermit and the fact he or she has to deal with throngs of visitors,” says Sergio Wyniger, the head of Solothurn’s city council. So far, the city has received 119 applications and expects to make a decision by next week.

The job of a hermit isn’t what it used to be. Tourists can easily reach once-secluded spots and modern technology makes it harder to escape friends and relatives - or strangers looking for advice on how to navigate life’s challenges. Today, many hermits live in city apartments or suburban row houses, often relying on the internet to make a living or order groceries.

Catholic hermits are usually recognised by their local diocese and have taken a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience with their bishop, similar to the vows monks and nuns take when they enter a monastery. For other hermits, a life of solitude is often a private choice.

Solothurn’s hermitage is popular with day trippers, and guided tours to the St Verena Gorge, organised by the city, are available in German, French and English. Weekends in particular can be trying for the hermit, says Mr Wyniger.

On top of keeping the gorge and adjacent chapels clean and tidy, the new hermit will have to help out with weddings and baptisms and dole out counsel for visitors suffering heartbreak or family trouble.

In return, the city council will reportedly pay him or her 1,000 Swiss francs (€822) a month, along with free lodging in the wood-shingled hermitage. The hermit works for and is paid by the city of Solothurn.

Other hermits aren’t so lucky. Rachel Denton, a hermit who has been living in a small house in the English county of Lincolnshire for the past 12 years, first created a website to promote her calligraphy business.

“I need to earn money and I can’t earn any money if no one knows I exist,” says Ms Denton, who asked for the name of her town not to be printed to avoid attracting more attention.

Since then, the former science teacher has taken to Facebook and Twitter, where she appears as @hermitrachel. Ms. Denton says she initially signed up to social media to pacify friends and family who wanted to stay in touch despite her seclusion.

“It’s a lot easier than sending out 7,000 emails,” says Ms Denton.

But the 51-year-old concedes that even someone deeply committed to solitude and silence can at times get sucked into the echo chamber that is social media. During the London Summer Olympics in 2012, Ms Denton found herself shooting off patriotic missives about the British team’s performance. “Oh look, we are past the French in the medal table,” she tweeted.

“When the end of the Olympics came I was a bit relieved. I could retreat again and shut up again,” she says.

While use of social media is rare, modern-day hermits generally don’t eschew technology - as long as it facilitates their life of solitude rather than distracts from it, says Isacco Turina, a sociology lecturer at the University of Bologna.

Case in point: “Hermits usually have a mobile phone, because they can switch it off for prayers,” says Mr Turina, who wrote his PhD thesis on Catholic hermits in Italy.

During his research, one hermit reproached Mr Turina for not owning a cellphone and he even came across two former nuns who found each other - and their new hermitage - over the internet.

The hermit tradition reaches back to the early days of Christianity, when St Anthony of Egypt retreated to the desert to dedicate his life to prayer. Hermits’ struggle to protect their solitude also began then.

“He changed place four times, each time receding from people. Everywhere he went crowds followed him, because they wanted advice,” Mr Turina says of St Anthony. “The destiny of a hermit is to retreat and then to be reached by people and by crowds.”

Wall Street Journal

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