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John Michell Mysteries


Archive for Thursday 8th August 2002 - A saintly life at the bottom of a well

The first country in Europe to adopt Christianity is said to be Georgia. In its mountains are ancient monasteries, founded by the early saints. One of them, which I once went to, has a deep, dark well at its centre. It was not built for holding water, but as a hermit’s cell. St Shio, the monastery’s founder, once lived at the bottom of it.

There is another well like that, only recently discovered, at Mine Howe on mainland Orkney. This one has a spiral of rough, stone steps down into it. The tiny chamber at the bottom is so dank and eerie that you would not want to spend five minutes there, let alone a hermit’s lifetime.

The buried chamber at Mine Howe is several thousand years old. Other rock-shelters in the western isles of Britain are also prehistoric – lived in by the hermits of Druid times. One of the earliest among Christians was St Simeon Stylites, who made his name by living for 36 years at the top of a 60-foot column in the Syrian desert. He did not find solitude there. Crowds of people came to see him, and he shouted down sermons to them.

It wasn’t just loneliness that hermits were looking for. They also wanted to be uncomfortable. So they made their cells in the most bleak and dreary spots they could find. That is one way, I suppose, of fitting yourself for eternal life with God. But I cannot help seeing it as rather pushy. I would rather stay with the others, serve out my time on earth and be judged divinely at the end of it – if that is really the way it goes.

John Michell

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