There is an old French proverb that reads, "The more things change, the more they stay the same". As the times accelerate in their ever-turning confusion, old ways seem new again. Perhaps some have reasoned away Rationalism, or have grown skeptical of Skepticism, apostatizing from the state of Un-belief. But in a world still looking for a bottom in the pursuit of philosophical and practical Materialism there is a growing number of those who have rejected what now seems old to them and have taken an old path that is breathing fresh life into the Church and the world.
THE HERMITS ARE BACK! Yes, hermits, that ancient form of life that is taking root and blossoming in this postmodern world. People living a life of prayer, yet not living in common as monks, but a bit more isolated. They are praying for you now. In cities, the pine forests of New Jersey, in the rolling hills of a rural state, a young woman in her twenties is praying for you and I right at this moment. Spending hours at the church cloister wall of a monastery Sister M. lives in the presence of Christ for us all.
Many seek a classic model such as Julian of Norwich, the Desert Fathers or follow the sprit of the Carthusians and Camaldolese orders. Those seeking this life are not surprised that the modern world and its ever-changing and at times violent nature would once again spur the hermit's vocation to he Church and the world. Interest continues to grow, as does understanding for the need for hermits. While monks are thought strange by some, even in the Church, hermits are viewed with leering suspicion by many. Nonetheless they're back and growing.
This is not a product of the Individualism that is so rampant in our society, but perhaps, as some in the life would say a natural reaction to it. Some have reflected that the Lemming Effect of our culture, where radical individualism actually destroys any genuine individuality and gives birth to masses of easily lead and mislead people, would turn on itself and produce more people who would in their turn, choose not to be a number. They would once again seek the desert places of the world and pray. The Church in her wisdom saw the revival and has made a mechanism to provide for this form of consecrated life. A hermit can profess under their Ordinary (diocesan Bishop) with an approved plan of life. It is under canon #603 of the new Code of Canon Law released in 1983.
"The Church recognizes the eremetic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance."
Hermits are popping up everywhere. Some officially recognized under Canon 603 and others who make private vows to priest or others. Some married couples who have raised children are living a form of this quiet life. The early Celtic Church was known for this. The Brothers and Sisters of Charity who are centered on John Michael Talbot offer several forms of the contemplative life. There are newsletters and a growing number of excellent web pages and e-communities. Some hermits live in common in what is known as a Laura. Hermits dwelling in separate cells or hermitages assist each other in prayer and share some common worship and meals together, though not as many as monks living in community. Be it in the heart of the city, or rural Montana, hermits are popping up all over. They're back and the Church is better off for it. From Maine to Oregon and South to the New Mexican desert men and women are offering up all in the silence of solitude their lives and dreams for a better city. In Philadelphia there are a number of them. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a large, very favorable feature on a hermit who purchased an old row home (town house) for $1. The pictures and interview detailed his life and meaning. It is a life that now emerges, finding its way in the "desert" of America. We need their prayers as surely as they stand in need of our support, understanding and fellowship in Christ Jesus.
The young woman mentioned in the first paragraph is the inspiration for this monograph. I first encountered Sister M. during my yearly retreat at a rural monastery in June of 2000. Her joy, earnestness, and devotion struck me. I admit that I watched her that weekend, not as an oddity or from curiosity but in amazement and hope. She was (and remains for many reasons) adorned in simple black clothing with a veil constantly on her head. I inquired of her with the brother monks and discovered she was indeed a hermit who came and worshipped in the guest chapel and grounds of the monastery.
I finally approached her, wishing not to intrude or seem overly curious, I had a short, prepared greeting. I stepped lightly toward her, and excused myself, she looked up and I was struck again. This time by the face that revealed itself from behind her black hood that is constantly on her head. She looked very young. I thought she could have passed as one of my high school students. I was honestly expecting someone in there forties. Her look was genuine and welcoming. Still a bit shy and now flummoxed, I awkwardly encouraged her in her hermit life, gave her a St. Benedict's medal and asked her to pray for me as I would for her. She smiled warmly, thanked me and we parted. She returned to prayer, as did I. The encounter lasted for perhaps fifteen seconds.
I thought frequently of the "The Little Hermit Girl" as I respectfully referred to her and often prayed for her gift of prayer. I rejoiced that one so young should seem so devoted to this ancient way of life. For a year I prayed for her, especially in the winter. I knew that she lived close to the monastery, but spent much time on the grounds. I assumed (rightly) that she was working at some subsistence type job, living frugally in small quarters, that contributed to her contemplative life. Perhaps the best term for Sister M. is the more classic "Anchoress"; for it is the traditional life lived by notables such as Julian of Norwich that is her desire. The year past, my retreat was scheduled for mid May of 2001. As I pulled up to the monastic church, by providence, she was coming out of the visitor's chapel. As she headed over to a quite spot under a tree, I decided to approach her again and speak with her and encourage her in her manner of life. Coming to the exact spot as a year ago I removed another image of St. Benedict, approached her, medal in hand, with the words, "Sister, I don't know if you remember me but" She looked at the medal in my hand, and before I could say more, removed her rosary from under her habit and held it before my eyes. Attached to the second mystery was the medal I gave her last year. I was deeply moved by her remembrance of our last, albeit, brief meeting. Again, with a smile, full of wisdom past her years, she invited me to visit. We talked, and prayed and continue to correspond to this day. Her sense of humor and devotion to our Lord is simple yet trenchant. I hope to tell her story. It surely needs to be told in this day and age. The media promotion of a hermit has its dangers in this age, yet the passing on of the sayings and lives of hermits and monks is as old as monasticism itself. The Vita of a servant of God is simply an extension of the Incarnation itself. It is the Incarnation that drive's Sister M. and causes her to cleave to the cloister wall that separates the visitor's chapel from the monastic sanctuary, as if she were the penitent woman clinging to the feet of Christ, or the Syro-Phoenician woman struggling to but touch the garments of our Lord.
Why would a young, intelligent woman want to spend her life in poverty, solitude and obscurity? A common question posed to a cenobitic monk, not to say a hermit in this most secular of all ages. Unfortunately it is a question asked of her by many religious, even a few monks. We talked at length and developed a friendship because I, a layman, showed her enthusiasm, support and complete understanding for the eremetic life. Though a good number of the monks support her, she has not received complete understanding from a number of religious. It's this understanding that has vanished from our presence that makes this life so difficult. If monasticism is a scandal to the world, how much more a hermit. But a young hermitess, a totally Un-Material Girl in this most material of all ages, how much more counter culture can you get? She knew she would be a scandal to many. Sr. M. even abides in the same small town she was raised. No need to quote the Gospel or common wisdom or even modern music to know that small towns have no place for a prophet, especially the young ones, especially a woman, especially one of their own.
INTO THE DESERT
Sister M. breaks many molds. A convert to Catholicism in her teens she
Immediately sought vowed religious life. This young girl who grew up writing poetry and listening to Metallica while weight lifting and practicing the martial arts would, even in her youth, find a calling, not only to be Catholic but embrace an ancient manner of life, that of a Anchoress. The modern music presented her with enough yearning, and the martial arts gave her a love of discipline. Little did she realize the ancient ideal of the desert, that of an Ascesis was being fed by this eclectic mix of physical training and hard music. The first monks saw themselves as warriors as those in training to fight the good fight. Ascesis is a word that denotes struggle and fighting as that of a soldier or prizefighter. This was the ideal of the ancient Egyptian desert the goal of the early Christian Celts on the Island of Saints. St. Pachomius the Great, the Father of Cenobitic monks, went directly from the Army to the desert. Soldiers often make the greatest monks. The similarities in the spiritualities are strikingly similar. Sr. M. saw that modern music and other forms of media may produce and express longing and angst but could in no way fill it (she has long had an aversion to TV, even as a child, it produced loneliness and isolation in her)
While raised with little to no formal religious training she had an instinctual attraction to holy places, at times, unknown to her at the time, physically attracted to be near and even touch the structure of a Catholic Church. A young M. visited a monastery close to her home and parish one afternoon. When she saw the reverence of the monks, the veneration of the altar and the bow made at the Gloria Patri she was determined to "have what they have". Her immediate, informed and intense conversion soon followed. She attended college while two years elapsed before she could enter the novitiate of a traditional religious order following an approved indult of the Tridentine Rite.
Sister Benjamin, as she was known in this order grew rapidly, and soon the
attractions of her child hood and new ones blossomed in her soul. The more she grew in
the Faith the more she was strongly drawn to solitude, even eremetic solitude. Sister
Benjamin was in her early twenties when she left the novitiate with the orders blessing
and direction. She made a private vow of her virginity and life, formally in writing to several priests in the sanctity of the confessional and began to live as a hermit. Her joy and her battle had just begun.
At first she returned to the monastery where first she saw the solemn worship of Christ her Lover. In the cool, dark interior of the visitors chapel, standing against the wall that separates the monastic sanctuary from the visitor's chapel she stood and prayed and yearned and
desired. This wall became a form and guardian of her spirituality. Her devotion to this structure is very similar to the devotion the ancient monks had to their cells. Just as the Desert Fathers believed that one should, "Remain in your cell. It will teach you everything". So Sr. M. spends much time at her wall in the monastic chapel. St. Peter Damien, a Doctor of the Church and father of the monastic life wrote an Enconium or Hymn of Praise addressed directly to his cell because of the form and structure it gave him in his life of solitude being apart yet united to all men and God. The wall that surrounds the Most Blessed Sacrament, in her adopted "cell and anchorhold" of the monastic quest chapel, is the flesh that surrounds the Sacred heart of Christ her Spouse.
She lives in simple quarters off monastic grounds, works a subsistence type job (cleaning silent, empty churches in the town of her childhood) and strives for stability and perseverance in reviving this life. Though Sr. M. strives to be a faithful daughter of the Church of all ages and under submission to all authority, she has not yet applied to the ordinary Bishop of her diocese for official recognition under Canon #603. Sister and others believe that she needs to prove perseverance in this life and grow and develop before other steps can be taken and her life be confirmed by the broader Church the bride of Christ her God. TO BE CONTINUED