Eremitic Life: An Overview

From the first centuries of the Church, men and
women have felt called to imitate the Incarnate Word
who took on the condition of a servant ... 
Hermits 
       and 
          Solitaries: 
The 
Contemplative 
Search 
for the 
Absolute



I.  Through the centuries


Most religious traditions, East and West, have hermits or renunciates who withdraw from society for more or less extended periods in order to dedicate fully to religious practice. The Christian Hermit -who lives the eremitical or hermitical life- is the person who retreats to a simple life in solitude for the sake of prayer.

... They have sought to follow Him by living in a particularly radical way, 
through monastic profession, the demands flowing from baptismal participation in
the Paschal Mystery of His Death and Resurrection...
          The eremitical life is the most ancient form of Christian monasticism. It flourished around the IV century in the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts as a new way of living out the radical message of the Gospel once the persecutions of the first three centuries ceased and Christians could live normal lives in their society around the Mediterranean. 
..By becoming bearers of the Cross, they have striven to 
become bearers of the Spirit authentically spiritual women 
and men, capable of endowing history with hidden spiritual
fruitfulness by unceasing praise and intercession, by 
spiritual counsels and works of charity.  JPII - VC#6




        St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony were among the first ones who had flown to the desert in response to a call to search for God and leave everything behind. 


       Many others followed in their footsteps, and often, although living in solitude, some would look for the proximity of fellow solitaries in order to seek advice and mutual support. Thus clusters of hermits called lauras were formed, and with time they became more and more organized. Some emphasized the communal life of the group, the cenobium, over the solitary life while others kept stricter solitude.
.


         In the VI century St. Benedict followed the call to solitude to seek God and retired to the desert living for some years in a hidden cave in the mountains of his Italian homeland. He too was sought after by many, and in order to respond to their demands for instruction in the spiritual path, he wrote the Rule we know under his name and established a monastery to live in community with his followers in Monte Cassino. Because of the wisdom and prudence of his Rule St. Benedict became the Father of Western monasticism, which thus organized spread rapidly even as part of the missionary effort to convert all European territories to Christianity.  



“In its desire to transfigure the world and life itself in expectation of the definitive vision of God's countenance, Eastern monasticism gives pride of place to conversion, self-renunciation and compunction of heart, the quest for hesychia or interior peace, ceaseless prayer, fasting and vigils, spiritual combat and silence, Paschal joy in the presence of the Lord and the expectation of his definitive coming, and the oblation of self and personal possessions, lived in the holy communion of the monastery or in the solitude of the hermitage” (VC #6).


In the Eastern regions it was St. Basil who wrote the Rule that even today is used for all monasticism in the Oriental Christian churches.




The first steps of Monasticism developed further in our Western tradition through the centuries into a rich variety of forms of Religious Life dedicated to both the active and the contemplative life.  Among the contemplative Orders, the Camaldolese and the Carthusians were founded in the XI and XII centuries in order to rescue and institutionalize a semi-eremitic life of hermits living in community within the exclusively cenobitic monastic tradition of the Middle Ages. They have retained their original purpose and lifestyle through the centuries even down to our days.
Besides these developments, from the time of the Egyptian desert Fathers and Mothers there have always been some varieties of hermits in the Catholic tradition although not officially recognized within the Church's structure. One of the reason for this is probably that when hermits where recognized and appreciated by the hierarchy, they were often given new rules and integrated into a community lifestyle more fitting with the institution. Several religious orders were born in this way.


     The XX century has seen a revival of hermits especially in developed countries. As it seems the multiplication of material riches and the comfortable conditions of our society have brought to light in some people the deeper hunger of the human spirit pushing them to leave behind everything in a radical quest for the Absolute. Art expert and celebrity Sr. Wendy Beckett, and the well known hermit monk and writer of recent times Thomas Merton, OCSO, are examples of this phenomenon which is happening over a whole spectrum of religious traditions.


         II.   The Diocesan Hermit today

In our Catholic Church for the first time the new Code of Canon Law published in 1983 defines and recognizes individual hermits in Canon 603:

§1. Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.
            §2. A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if s/he publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes her/his plan of life under his direction.”


Hermits, in their profound solitude, do not withdraw
               from ecclesial communion but serve that communion by
           their specific charism of contemplation” (VC#42)

          The Plan or Rule of Life approved by the bishop is characteristic of the individual hermit. It includes the specifics of their life: prayer, the vows, accountability, spiritual direction etc. The Rule may be based on some major spiritual tradition or ancient Rule. Some hermits are affiliated with an Order or community, others may live in groups or lauras for mutual support although keeping their individual hermitage and Rule.

         Hermits live a simple lifestyle but still have to work to support themselves in their financial needs. To that extent they engage in some kind of manual work, crafts, computer work, writing, or other occupations compatible with the silence of the hermitage and their primary task which is prayer. The hermitage or hermit's dwelling is the sacred place of communion with God where the hermit prays, works, studies and reflects, plays, rests, and lives in solitude. It may be located in an isolated or remote place but quite often it is in the midst of an urban setting where the eremitical desert is found in the anonymity of the modern city.


           The eremitical life is centered on prayer and the search for God, like other forms of contemplative life. There are many forms of and aspects to prayer and here too every hermit has a personal way or emphasis which is expressed in the Rule. 
  Prayer is constantly nourished by spiritual reading and the sacraments. Hermit priests have the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist in their solitude. 


         Beside the Eucharist, hermits usually expend significant time with Lectio -the meditative reading and praying of Scripture; the Divine Office or official Liturgy of the Church -which some hermits chant even in solitude; centering prayer or other forms of very simple and contemplative prayer; the Jesus' Prayer or prayer of the heart -so characteristic of the Eastern Church; and many other expressions and devotions that allow for a frame to a life of prayer which permeates every activity and moment of the day. 


        They pray wholeheartedly for the intentions entrusted to them; they pray -from the distance- together with those who pray, and they pray as well for those who don't pray or don't know how to pray. There is a mystery to prayer that they cannot probe but they pray following an inner urge as well as the gospel invitation and the requests from our contemporary world. And in the process something happens to them as well as to the world. Indeed God's power is fully present behind the apparent powerlessness of prayer.

The eremitic vocation is a gift, a daring call to live alone with the Al-one. It is a life of faith tested again and again. It is a life of naked spiritual poverty aimed at crafting an empty vessel to hold the unceasing prayer of Christ in us through the Spirit. This is how the hermit serves the Church, the society and the world.

        And yet the hermit is not spared any of the challenges of life because they enter into solitude with the same baggage of humanity that everyone has to deal with, which means with the same anxieties and fears of all people. Hermits have to confront these and make peace with them in a relentless process intensified by the eremitic lifestyle and the absence of distractions. True search for the Absolute cannot bypass the inner self and the humanness of the seeker; thus the accompaniment of a spiritual director is a needed blessing in the initial discernment and most beneficial through the life-long process of growth in response to the vocation. Although condensed in the life of the hermit, this intense process is no different from the transformation called forth in every person through life where we all journey towards union with God and identification with Christ. This, I think, makes the eremitical life particularly relevant to our world.





Fr. W. Paul Jones, a hermit in Pittsburg, MO, offers his approach to the question about the eremitical life in Raven's Bread, a newsletter for hermits and those living in solitude:
This call into solitude is a pilgrimage into darkness and crucifixion, for it annihilates the self one once knew and fostered. It is a lonely path, hidden from the eyes of the world that neither knows nor cares -- certain that the hermit is a failure. Free from the lure of possessions, power, and status, the contemplative life has no practical use or purpose whatever. Hermits are pilgrims, dependent on pure faith -- that this is where God would have them be. To walk into silence is to be stripped of certainty that one has an answer to anything -- until the questions that once plagued the mind nestle in the soul as friends.
One would hardly enter such a valley of shadows willingly. Yet amidst all the options one has, strangely, there is no choice. Nothing else matters except to be a person of prayer. And some day, in the gentle quietness, standing among the ashes of dreams and ambition, one may be blessed with the only certitude likely to be given: that to seek is to be sought, and to find is have been found.
To be drawn into this dread solitude is really an invitation to keep company with God's loneliness -- God emptied in total identification with us -- ignored, hidden, forgotten, profoundly poor. Drawn by this Presence, the hermit stands with rejected ones everywhere, living the joy of simplicity freed to want nothing more than to grow old loving one's God (RB July 97).
It is this ignored, hidden, forgotten, profoundly poor Presence what fills the solitary life with Peace and Joy. The joy of the hermit in their poverty witness for our world to the reality and love of God, the true Source of all Joy, and is an invitation for all to cherish and develop the contemplative dimension of every human life.


Emmanuel Hermitage     
Diocese of Prince George 

1 comment:

  1. Sister, Thank you for sharing. In Jesus

    ReplyDelete