Here, I list my top ten saints who lived extraordinary lives in solitude and penance - some for only a few years, and some for most of their lives.
"Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow...My spirit flat before thee."1
To the modern understanding, St. Simeon the Stylite is about as alien and extreme as a saint can get. Entering a monastery as a youth, he was expelled due to his excessive ascetical practices. For almost four decades, he ended up living atop a pillar until his death, and would pray continuously. The pillar was short at first, but it ended up that "he finally built one 60 feet (80 meters) high, and remained on it for the last twenty years of his life"2.
"Accordingly, I invite you now; come, and quickly. Do not call to mind old ties; the desert is for those who have left all. Nor let the hardships of your former travels deter you. You believe in Christ, believe also in His words: 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.' Take neither scrip nor staff. He is rich enough who is poor - with Christ."3
I'm not certain, but it seems that some forget that the great Latin Doctor who translated the Scriptures into the Latin Vulgate was, for a time, a desert ascetic. Indeed, I think it would take something like the punishing harshness of the desert to tame such a temperament as St. Jerome's.
Many works of art depict him beating his breast with a stone and gazing upon a crucifix. The lion, a common figure in the lives of the saints of the desert, is almost always in depictions of him as well. His Letter XIV: To Heliodorus is considered a classic of desert spirituality, and is well worth the read.
“Bury here the body of Mary the sinner.”4
Possibly the greatest of the female ascetics of the desert, St. Mary of Egypt was formerly a prostitute who went on a pilgrimage merely to seduce other pilgrims and make a bit of money along the way. Her life changed when she could not enter a church due to a force keeping her out, and fled in penitence to the desert. She remains a patron of hardened sinners to this day, and is remembered as one of the greatest Christian hermits in history.
4. St. Antony the Great
"The abbot Antony said, 'Who sits in solitude and in quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing he continually battle: that is, his own heart.'"5
Words cannot do justice to how much I admire this figure - he is my patron saint in fact, alongside St. Francis of Assisi. One read of his vita by St. Athanasius was enough to inspire a tremendous devotion to this particular saint's holy life and virtues - his battles with temptations, his solitary and hardship-filled life, and his spiritual directions given to those who came to him. Though he was preceded by St. Paul the Hermit, he remains arguably the greatest of all the Christian hermits and desert fathers.
"And so the days of this life are lengthened and we are granted a truce during which to amend our bad ways, as the Apostle says, 'Do you know that patience is leading you to penitence?' (Romans 2:4)"6
St. Benedict is a household name (or should be) amongst Catholics. By and large, he is known as the "Father of Western Monasticism", but he also, like St Jerome, spent time in extreme solitude - in his case, it was three years in a cave, where he was fed by a raven.
St. Benedict's writings on monastic life allegedly came from his time alone, wherein he learned to temper the more extreme elements of the Desert Fathers into a more palatable communal lifestyle. He remains to this day the exemplar of the Western monastic.
"The abbot Macarius the elder used to say to the brethren in Scete, 'When Mass is ended in the church, flee, my brothers.' And one of the brethren said to him, 'Father, whither in this solitude can we further flee?' And he laid his finger upon his mouth saying 'This is what I would have you flee.' And so he would go into his cell and shut the door and there sit alone."7
The "Lamp of the Desert", St. Macarius was one of the greatest of all the Desert Fathers, having learned at the feet of St. Anthony the Great himself. His holiness eventually drew thousands of followers, and he became a great champion against the heresy of Arianism.
His genuine writings are few - the majority of writings under his name are allegedly by someone else writing under his name, and so are known as the writings of "Pseudo-Macarius". Nonetheless, I always wince a little at modern criticism of any kind, and so have no problem labeling them as the writings of St. Macarius - in fact, the Orthodox generally still do it seems.
"Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is the mystery of the world to come."8
A theologian and a hermit in a sense, St Isaac the Syrian is still new to me, as he is more venerated in the Christian East than in the Christian West. But what I have read of his writings is immensely profound.
He lived much of his life as a hermit, and studied Scripture and the great spiritual writings so much that by the end of his life, he was nearly blind from doing so.
"Who can recount his labors? Who can number the trials he endured living alone in the wilderness? ... God, the Beholder of all hidden things, alone saw it."9
Those of us Latin-rite Catholics might have no clue who this man is, but this highly-venerated saint of the Russian Orthodox Church is also, as far as I know, approved for veneration by Catholics as well. Don't ask me how - you'll get all kinds of answers from others too, ranging from "how dare they label a schismatic a saint" to "they're just as saintly as our saints".
Whichever, I leave that to the Church to decide. But Sergius is quite the fascinating figure. Meeting with an angelic monk as a child, Sergius later grew up to become a hermit of the harsh Russian wilderness, surviving hunger, wild animals, and brutal cold alone. Inevitably, others were drawn to him by his reputed holiness, and he formed a monastic community. But it is his holy life among the bears and winds of the wilderness that captures the heart and mind.
"There, with the help of pious folk and especially a certain abbess by the name of Helwiga, he built a cabin, the bare necessity for his vow, and he remained in that place for the rest of his life."10
I would guess that few have heard of this saintly hermit either, and yet his is a touching story. A Benedictine monk, he lived in in the 9th century alone in the Black Forest of Germany, and was reputed to be an extremely holy man. Word spread, however, of his supposed harbouring of treasures, and robbers soon paid him a visit. Finding no treasure at all, they beat him to death with clubs.
St. Meinrad has always held a special fascination for me because of his assuming the best in people - he displayed hospitality to any and all it seems, which eventually led to his death at the hands of thieves he had just fed dinner and offered shelter to. Apparently, they did not have the last laugh however - legend says that ravens chased the bandits away, and they were later executed for their crime.
10. St. Paul the Hermit
"And as they talked they perceived that a crow had settled on a branch of the tree, and softly flying down, deposited a whole loaf before their wondering eyes. And when he had withdrawn, 'Behold,' said Paul, 'God hath sent us our dinner, God the merciful, God the compassionate. It is now sixty years since I have had each day a half loaf of bread: but at thy coming, Christ hath doubled His soldiers' rations.'"11
Here we have the original Christian hermit, the earliest recorded individual of his type. Fleeing persecution as a young man, St Paul of Thebes (as he is also known) made his way deep into the desert. Therein he made a home in a cave-like structure with an opening to the sky, and lived for the rest of his life. It is related in his vita that St. Anthony the Great visited him, and shortly thereafter, St. Paul died. His body was buried by lions as his soul was escorted to Paradise. I cannot tell you how much the reading of his life meant to me - unlike St. Anthony, his life is not interlaced with dire spiritual warfare against demonic forces, but one lived in complete simplicity and dependence on God for all things. A most worthy and honorable saint, if you ask me.
1 - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "St. Simeon Stylites"
2 - Michael McMahon, Saints: The Art, the History, the Inspiration, 139
3 - St. Jerome, Letter XIV: To Heliodorus
4 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, "St. Mary of Egypt"
5 - Verba Seniorum, II:2
6 - St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue
7 - Verba Seniorum, IV:27
8 - qtd. in Fr. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Epilogue (pg 178)
9 - Epiphanius the Wise, The Life, Acts and Miracles of Our Revered and Holy Father Abbot Sergius
10 - The Life of Venerable Meinrad, the Hermit
11 - St. Jerome, The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit