Although today's meaning is usually a place where a hermit lives in seclusion from the world, hermitage was more commonly used to mean a settlement where a person or a group of people lived religiously, in seclusion.
A hermitage is any type of domestic dwelling in which a hermit lives. While the level of isolation can vary widely, more often than not it is associated with a nearby monastery. Typically, hermitages consist of at least one detached room, or sometimes a dedicated space within an open floor plan building, for religious devotion, basic sleeping accommodations, and a domestic cooking range, suitable for the ascetic lifestyle of the inhabitant. Depending on the work of the hermit, premises such as a studio, workshop or chapel may be attached or sited in proximity.
Originally, the first hermitages were located in natural caves, temple ruins, and even simple huts in forests and deserts. Around the time of early fourth century (around 300 ACE), the spiritual retreats of the Desert Fathers, who had chosen to live apart from society in the relative isolation of the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, began to attract the attention of the wider Christian community. The piety of such hermits often attracted both laity and other would-be ascetics, forming the first cenobitic communities called "sketes", such as Nitria and Kellia. Within a short time, more and more people arrived to adopt the teachings and lifestyle of these hermits, and there began by necessity a mutual exchange of labour and shared goods between them, forming the first monastic communities.
In the later feudal period of the Middle Ages, both monasteries and hermitages alike were endowed by royalty and nobility in return for prayers being said for their family, believing it to beneficial to the state of their soul.
Carthusian monks typically live in a one-room cell or building, with areas for study, sleep, prayer, and preparation of meals. Most Carthusians live a mostly solitary life, meeting with their brethren for communion, for shared meals on holy days, and again irregularly for nature walks, where they are encouraged to have simple discussions about their spiritual life.
In the modern era, hermitages are often abutted to monasteries, or located on their grounds, being occupied by monks who receive dispensation from their abbot or prior to live a semi-solitary life. However, hermitages can be found in a variety of settings, from isolated rural locations, houses in large cities, and even high-rise blocks of flats, depending on the hermit's means.
Examples of hermitages in Western Christian tradition:
- The Grande Chartreuse in Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, France, motherhouse of the Carthusian Order.
- New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, United States
- Camaldolese Hermitage in Bielany, Kraków, Poland
A poustinia is a small, sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone "in the presence of God". The word poustinia has its origin in the Russian word for desert.
In Hinduism, a hermitage is called an ashram. Traditionally, an ashram in ancient India was a place where sages lived in peace and tranquility amidst nature.