LIFE IN SOLITARY

In the photo, Agnes Long looks drop-dead gorgeous. She's on vacation at the Jersey shore with her husband. He is tall, tan and trim; she wears a zebra-stripe bikini, a floppy hat and sunglasses. The sea breeze has blown her platinum hair across her face and she is smiling. The picture says it all. In the mid-1970s, Agnes Long was a happily married, affluent, middle-aged woman with three children and a weakness for expensive clothes.

Today, Agnes Long is a Roman Catholic hermit. She lives alone in a thickly wooded section of Madeline Island, in northern Wisconsin. Her beloved husband is dead; she hasn't seen her children in years. She wakes before dawn, prays throughout the day, eats small meals, works outside, makes religious paintings, and rises in the middle of the night to pray. Although she sees people when she drives her little truck to the grocery store or to mass, she has no one you might call a friend. And though she answers her phone when it rings, she doesn't often engage in what you would call conversation. "I feel that my whole life has been in preparation for where God has me now," she says, as she slips the old photo back into the pages of her prayer book. "When you go into solitude, you find out who you really are."

Long's life may look radical, but she is following an ancient path. Christianity has a long tradition of hermits, dating back to the third and fourth centuries, when Saint Anthony and thousands like him fled the hardships of the cities for the desolation of the Middle Eastern desert. There they fasted and prayed with the sole intent of getting closer to God. They believed stringent solitude would help them glimpse heaven; the pilgrims who visited them said they looked like angels. These ascetics are known as the Desert Fathers, and there is not a contemplative monk or nun in the world who does not treasure their legacy.

In recent decades, the word "hermit" has come to mean anyone who lives off the grid, from Emily Dickinson to the Unabomber, and the hermits following the ancient Christian tradition have been found mostly living on monastery grounds. Now a tiny but growing number of Catholics--regular people like Long, with children, marriages and careers in their pasts--are embracing the hermit life as it was conceived in the desert 16 centuries ago. They are choosing solitude, celibacy and asceticism in order to focus full time on God.

To accommodate their life choices, some dioceses have recently developed guidelines where would-be hermits go through a rigorous process that involves interviews, psychological testing and counseling. In the end, after taking vows similar to those of a priest or a nun, the hermit lives in isolation but maintains an official connection with a bishop. The number of these hermits is probably in the double digits, but that's not the only route. Nine hundred people subscribe to Raven's Bread, a newsletter for people interested in the hermit life, up from 700 last year, and many of them are leading some kind of ascetic existence, says Karen Fredette, who coedits the newsletter with her husband. Most subscribers are Catholic, but some are Protestant and others are Hindu, Sufi and Buddhist. Recent issues contain testimonials from a 51-year-old psychotherapist in New Jersey, a New York City dweller and a hermit who lives in a hut without plumbing or electricity in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Fredette likes to say that there are as many ways to be a hermit as there are hermits, and while that may be true, some generalities apply. Hermits tend to be older than 50, with a life-changing tragedy in their past. They tend to have had an intensely religious phase in their lives, which was overtaken by the demands of adulthood. Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, who drafted hermit guidelines for the diocese of LaCrosse, Wis., in 1997, says many people are simply sick of the overwhelming busyness that characterizes so many lives. "Sometimes we're just tired of working so hard at a career, and something about pushing back--finding out who and what are at the center of our being--appeals to us."

Until its extraordinary turn, Agnes Long's life was similar to that of many American Catholic girls growing up before Vatican II. A dreamy, devout child, she went to parochial schools and fantasized about becoming a nun. Instead she married at 20 and had three children. Her marriage, she says, was awful. After 17 years, she betrayed her church and filed for divorce. Then she stopped going to mass.

Everything changed in 1972, when she met Marlin Long, the man she still calls "the love of my life." At the time, she was living in New Jersey, working during the day, being a mom to her kids and going to college at night. She loved clothes, and men, and often stayed out all night, dancing. Marlin was a friend of a former beau. "He had this beautiful body and he had this beautiful tan," she says. They married in 1976, and two years later moved to east Texas, where he worked for the rubber industry. They had an enormous house, three cars in the garage and an ultramodern bedroom set, made mostly of glass. Agnes wore white boots with her jeans. Church wasn't part of the story.

In 1984, things began to unravel, and Agnes couldn't understand why. Marlin became moody, began to pick fights with her that lasted all night. In her anguish, Agnes turned to a friend, who took her to a church where Agnes began to feel the stirrings of her faith again. One afternoon, while she was miserably working in her swampy backyard, trying to dig a pine stump out by its roots, Agnes believed she heard the voice of God. As she sits at the folding kitchen table in her little house on Madeline Island, Agnes tells the story steadily and in a clear voice. "I'm on my knees in the water, and I hear a voice saying, 'Here I am. I am here.' And every sin I ever committed flashed before my eyes." She ran back into her house and began to sob. "That presence," she says, "has never left me."

The explanation for the mood swings was simple. Marlin had a brain tumor, and when he died six months later Agnes gave her life to God. She sold the house and donated most of the furniture to Goodwill. She took a leave from her job and moved to Tanzania, where she worked for a bishop and then, after a few years, went back to New Jersey where she drifted from place to place. By 1994, she had spent her inheritance and was living in a one-room cabin in Pennsylvania, surviving with her $800 Social Security check and the wages she earned working at a monastery gift shop. She became interested in painting religious icons and at one class she met a hermit. That afternoon she went home and asked the Lord, "Is that what I am? A hermit?"

In 1997, after several years of careful deliberation, she committed herself to a life of solitude, unceasing prayer, penance, poverty, chastity and obedience at a mass in the diocese of LaCrosse. All three of her children attended the ceremony. In a document she wrote at the time, she promised to speak only when necessary, eat meat just once a week and fly east to see her children once a year. She chose to wear a blue denim habit; blue, the color of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and denim because it is the fabric of working people.

But things haven't turned out exactly as planned. Agnes Long eats more meat than she intended, because her neighbors shoot deer and give her venison. She hasn't been East in years; she speaks to two of her three children infrequently. She still lives on her Social Security check, and gets considerable help in the way of little favors from the people of Madeline Island who pitch in when she needs to use a fax machine. It's a strange life. "The Desert Fathers say, 'Go into your cell and it will teach you everything'," she says. And for her, that everything is profound, indeed. A decade of solitude has taught her, she says, that she is as broken as anybody and that God's love is unconditional.

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