Know Your Words

The Patron Saints of Hermits

Temptation of Saint Anthony (Bosch)

Last time, I shared a few thoughts on the word lonely and how it’s (lazily) related to, yet quite different from the word alone. I even got into what it means to be alone (and lonely) in your dreams! There was, however, something about the lonely that I have neglected to mention: they have patron saints!

At least I think they do. It’s not entirely clear. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints (which, oddly enough, doesn’t contain a definition of saint as far as I can tell), there are no patron saints of the “lonely,” but there are patron saints of “hermits.” Given that hermits choose to live alone (yet recognizing that alone and lonely are not the same thing), I figured “close enough.” (How’s that for lazy?)

So who are these saints of the hermit set? Here’s the run-down according to the ODS:

Antony of Egypt – He sold all of his possessions at the age of 20 and went to live among local ascetics. From 286 to 306, he lived in complete solitude in a deserted fort as Pispir. Here he underwent “a series of temptations usually associated with the hermit life” [?]; at the end of this period, he left solitude to guide the disciples who had gathered around him. Later in his life, he moved to Alexandria, where he was reported to have worked miracles.

Giles – Not much is know about this guy, but the ODS says that he lived as a hermit near the mouth of the Rhone River. Injured in a hunting accident, he later became the patron of (and I quote) “cripples, lepers, and nursing mothers.” In England, “162 ancient churches” and “at least 24 hospitals” were dedicated to him.

Temptation of Saint Hilarion (Tassaert)

Hilarion – The son of pagan parents in Palestine, Hilarion went to Alexandria to study and became a Christian. He visited Antony at the height of his fame, then returned to Palestine where he discovered his parents were dead. In response to the news, he sold all of his stuff and then became a hermit at Majuma. His austerity drew crowds and he is said to have preformed miracles. To escape the masses, he moved on to Dalmatia. Eventually, his fame caught up with him and he went on the move again. He landed in Cyprus, where he lived the rest of his life. He died at the ripe old age of 80.

In addition to these fellows, there is another saint, Gemma Galgani. Although she is not counted among the patron saints of hermits, she is associated with loneliness — although not by ODS. On the contrary, her link to the lonely comes from a website that characterizes her as “The Saint Who Knew Loneliness,” so I thought I’d include her here.

Gemma Galgani (note the stigmata)

Galgani – Orphaned at the age of 18, Gemma Galgani wanted desperately to become a nun, but the convent of her choice wouldn’t accept her due to “a series of illnesses.” Word on the street is that she “experienced to the highest degree the isolation of loneliness” as a result this rejection, yet she kept it together and remained obedient and patient, and became renowned for her “heroic poverty.” (On the freakier side of things, she was said to occasionally experience the stigmata and also appeared to suffer diabolical possession.)


Additional and or Supplementary Info:

1.) Um, What’s a Saint?

In general, a saint, according to the Basic Catholic Dictionary, is:

“Any person known for Christian holiness; [or] in the strictest sense, a person who has manifested heroic virtue during his or her life and who is officially honored by the Church as one who has attained heavenly glory and as one through whom God freely chooses to exhibit exceptional generosity.”

Whew, that’s a mouthful. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church offers a better, more straightforward definition (of sorts): “The practice of venerating and invoking the saints … rests on the belief that the saints are both close to God (because of their holiness) and accessible to man (whose nature they share).”

2.) Okay, So What’s a Patron Saint?

Put simply, a patron saint is a “saint looked upon as a special guardian of a person, place, or institution” (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language) or “the guardian saint of any nation, place, craft, activity, or person” (American Heritage Dictionary). For what it’s worth, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church agrees and offers nearly the same description as the American Heritage.

The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature agrees as well, but has a lot more to say on the subject. For example, it is within its pages that we learn the word patron goes back to Roman times, where it was used to characterize a relationship in which “a Roman citizen, desirous of a protector, might attach himself to a patron, whose client he thenceforward became….” The patron, the book goes on to say, “was the guardian of his client’s interests, public and private; as his legal adviser, he vindicated his rights before the courts of law. The client was bound, on various occasions, to to assist the patron with money….”

If you’re wondering what all of this has to do with saints, keep going ….

“Patron, in time, came to be a common designation of every protector or powerful promoter of the interests of another; thus also the saints — who were believed to watch over particular interests of persons, places, trades, etc. acquired in the Middle Ages the designation of patron saints.”

Now you know.

Know Your Words

I’m Back … and “Lonely”

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
– Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau: alone, but not lonely

The mother-in-law-related interference I mentioned in my previous post has run it’s course and I’m back at it. However, if there was an up-side to being away for that week or so, it was that being away from this blog gave me a little time to think about my reference library, this blog, how they fit in to my present state of affairs and what I want to accomplish.

The result of all that thinking was a subtle name change — what was once the Anachronist Reference Library has now become the Lonely Reference Library. It was the right move, and not only because the word “anachronism” doesn’t exactly mesh with blogging. The other reason behind the name change is that I spend an awful lot of time by myself, which I suppose makes me something of a loner, but not necessarily lonely, which has a rather somber ring to it. Be that as it may, the “Loner Reference Library” didn’t sound quite right, so I went with “lonely.”

It is in that spirit, that I thought I’d start this new era by examining the word lonely in my customary way. To the dictionaries!

To my surprise, the Oxford English Dictionary defines lonely in more ways than I anticipated.

1. (Of persons, their actions, conditions, etc.) Having no companionship or society; unaccompanied, solitary, lone
2. (Poetical) Of things: Isolated, standing apart; lone
3. (Of localities) Unfrequented by men; desolate
4. Dejected because of want of company or society; sad at the thought that one is alone; having a feeling of solitariness b.) (poetical) Imparting a feeling of loneliness; dreary.

Obviously, when speaking of things or place, there is little question as to what lonely means. Things get a little more complicated, thought, when you apply it to humans. Thus, to see if a little more knowledge might light my way, I reached deep into the LRL’s stacks and checked some other dictionaries.

To my surprise, they did. The Webster’s School and Office Dictionary from 1914 included the word “retired” with its definition and the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language offered the curious phrase “longing for friends,” which is something quite different from “want of company or society.”

Clearly, when describing people, the aforementioned sources deem alone and lonely to be synonymous, but are they? A self-professed loner (like me) might object, saying that when he or she spends time alone (i.e., unaccompanied), he or she is not necessarily lonely ( i.e., “longing for friends” or feeling “dejected because of want of company or society”).

To further complicate matters, I typically feel loneliest (in the sad, dejected use of the term), when I’m standing in a room full of people I don’t know and don’t feel up to the small talk (why yes, I am an introvert). In these instances, I don’t suffer from a “want of society,” but rather a want of escape.

Oddly enough, this co-mingling of alone and lonely may have an etymological justification, at least according to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, which says “Lonely is a derivative of lone, itself a truncated form of alone.” Even more interesting is that, as the text goes on to say, the term alone is “simply a compound of all and one” and that, in Old English, it was a completely separate phrase, all ana, literally, “completed by oneself.” I don’t know about you, but that has a rather positive ring to it. So much for feelings of dejection.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the most nuanced assessment of loneliness in my library comes not from Oxford or Websters, but (Cheung’s) Dream Dictionary from A to Z:

Dreams about being alone often refer to the solitary life you might be leading, but they can also refer to those time when you need to strike out in a new direction, separating yourself from your friends and family in a non-social context. To dream that you are alone in a crowd may imply that you are isolated from those around you, while being alone in a landscape may suggest that you prefer to make decisions by yourself. A dream of being an astronaut on a solitary space walk may refer to deep feelings of being alone or going it alone. If you dreamed you were alone in a garden or in the countryside, a more tolerable — even pleasurable — form of solitude may be being referred to. Finding  yourself alone as a child is a powerful image of loneliness, emotional vulnerability, and feeling lost.

So are alone and lonely  synonymous? Not when they’re applied to human beings, for as noted above, one can be alone but not lonely, or conversely, lonely while standing in room full of people. Or to put it another way, while being alone and feeling alone mean different things in different contexts, those who are lonely and feel lonely are experiencing the same thing–a want for companionship–regardless of other factors.