In mid-January, a small village in the Austrian Alps briefly made international headlines. For Austrians living abroad—a demographic that includes yours truly—that’s usually not a good thing. This time, however, the news was refreshingly free of National Socialism or subterranean sex dungeons. Instead, the town of Saalfelden, in the state of Salzburg, was in need of a new hermit. The previous one had quit after just one season.
According to the job posting, Saalfelden is one of the only places in Central Europe that still has a tenanted hermitage. In the mid-17th century, a chapel and adjacent living quarters were built into a rock face overlooking the scenic Saalfelden Basin. Sitting at an elevation of roughly 3,300 feet, the space has been inhabited ever since. In recent years, the resident hermit has been expected to live in the cliffside dwelling from April until November. Applicants for the position should have “a connection to Christian beliefs” and be “at peace with themselves,” according to the posting. The aspiring hermit also shouldn’t be a total misanthrope, since the job includes conversing with visiting hikers as well as pilgrims seeking spiritual guidance. Applicants should be prepared for an ascetic existence: there’s no electricity or running water, and the position is unpaid. The Daily Mail asked, “Is this the worst job in the world?”
Not everyone seems to think so.
In fact, the initial deadline of March 15 was moved forward to the end of February due to the unanticipated number of applications.
“We were taken totally by surprise,” says Alois Moser, a local priest who, along with Saalfelden’s mayor, Erich Rohrmoser, will be choosing the next hermit. Over the phone, Moser said they were initially hoping that a brief news item on Austrian public television would yield one or two qualified candidates. Instead, the ad went viral.
Moser has since heard from people as far afield as the United States, Argentina, and Thailand. It’s hardly Powerball for international recluses—Moser said he had just over 20 applications when I spoke with him in mid-February—but the response is still unprecedented. At least four women are seeking to become Saalfelden’s first female hermit. Though they will be up against the stodgy traditionalism of the Austrian Catholic church, Moser says every applicant will be given careful consideration.
As for why so many media outlets deemed the hermit gig newsworthy (or at least clickbait worthy), Moser thinks that something about the simple, solitary life “registered with the current zeitgeist.”
Recent trends in digital detox and gung-ho individualism seem to bear this out. On the one hand, there’s the ominous rise of the doomsday prepper. On the milder end of the spectrum are the back-to-nature movements that signify a sort of low-stakes rebellion against the pervasiveness of the internet.
“It’s the yearning of our time: to escape the rat race, the incessant media, all the fear and the unrest in the world. There’s a desire to withdraw from the drama and the pace of it all,” says Brother Raimund von der Thannen, the 68-year-old Austrian Benedictine monk who was Saalfelden’s hermit from 2004 to 2015. Von der Thannen, who now lives in an abbey in the Styrian village of St. Lambrecht, believes the need to get away from it all has only increased with the rise of social media.
“There’s this horrible pressure to constantly present yourself to the world via simplistic means, be it over Twitter, or YouTube, or what do I know,” he says. “It’s a constant pressure to promote a version of yourself that’s not real. Everyone wants to come off as a world champion, but everyone’s really just a dope.”
With his reserved demeanor, prodigious beard, and cowl, von der Thannen so embodied the stereotypical religious recluse that it was a hard act to follow. His short-lived successor, a Viennese priest and psychotherapist named Thomas Fieglmüller, was chastised by conservative members of the community for not being sufficiently hermit-like in appearance. (He didn’t have a cowl or a beard.) “Maybe I was the wrong person for the job,” Fieglmüller told the Salzburger Nachrichten, though the article states that he left on good terms and plans to attend the swearing-in ceremony for the next hermit.
Asked why he decided to take up residence in Saalfelden all those years ago, von der Thannen said he was inspired by a desire to free himself from the shackles of materialism and the need for recognition. “Not having to be important is such a wonderful thing,” he says. He’d been employed at a bank, had worked as a tax adviser, and had been an instructor at a trade school. He’d had his trials, too. Divorced with two adult children, von der Thannen is a cancer survivor and former gambling addict, though he stresses that prospective hermitage occupiers need to have conquered any such demons before taking up residence—Saalfelden is not rehab center with a killer view. “You can’t be running from something,” says von der Thannen. “It has to be an unforced decision.”
This feels consistent with the line from the vacancy notice about aspiring hermits needing to be “at peace with themselves.” After all, accepting a life of solitary reflection is only one half of what the job entails. The other is being well-adjusted and empathetic enough to offer solace for those in need. The aspiring wise man on the mountain, in other words, shouldn’t only be looking out for number one.
“That’s the whole point,” says von der Thannen. “Being a hermit only to get yourself into heaven is really not enough.”