REBORN IN SILENCE An Old way of Life Takes Root in America

By: Mark J. Kelly

The way of life continues to grow. Under the generous boughs of an old pine forest in central New Jersey there dwells a new manner of religious life. Well, it is new to us in America, and actually quite old by any standard.
Surrounded by trees and prayers is a laura of hermits. The Hermits of Bethlehem are an approved laura of hermits, of diocesan rite, living under canon 603 of the new Code of Canon Law. 
I recently paid an unannounced visit to this place and discovered their unique way of life. The father or head of the laura, Fr. Eugene Romano, greeted me in a most warm and Christian manner.   
Though he was in the midst of a retreat he took all of his break time to visit with me, hospitality remains a strong part of the hermit tradition. He has been a Hermit for twenty-five years (and a parish priest for some time before,embracing this life) and has the enthusiasm and joy for the life that I one would only expect to see in a postulant or aspirant to the religious life. 
There appears no age limit on seeking a vocation, simply a deep desire to live this life with God the Father, though Jesus Christ His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. 
The Laura has both male and female hermits. Though I am not sure it is fair to call it a mixed community because of the manner of life. The hermits spend most of their time praying the canonical Divine Office in their own cells or working on a task in solitude. Hermits have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in their own cell and pray before it many times a day.
They eat, work and perform Lectio Divina "alone with the Great Alone". They meet only for daily Mass that ends with 20 minutes of silence before the closing benediction. No other offices are prayed in common except for Sunday. 
The hermits admire greatly the Desert Fathers and try to imitate their wisdom in our midst. In ancient desert fashion they meet for Solemn Vespers, Matins and Mass on Sunday followed by their only communal meal.
This habit is also observed on any Solemnity. Besides this Sunday horarium and daily mass all other prayer and functions are in solitude. 
Their day begins around 4:00am with Vigils.Yet in true hermit fashion not all hermits are bound to the schedules as a cenobitic monk.If a hermit is more of a "night person", they may move their vigils to late night and rise a bit later. 
The hermits of Bethlehem stress "the responsibility of freedom". They struggle not to abuse their hermit status and keep apart from strict regimentation while keeping to a spirit and practice of an old saying of St. Isaac of Syria, "CONSISTENCY is the mother of Virtue". 
From what I can see, they tend to run their day by hours of prayer, not a fixed clock. They were a simple denim hermit's habit and pray the Angelus three times a day. 
During our interview and fellowship the Angelus Bell rang. Fr. Eugene gently paused the conversation and together we prayed, commemorating the Incarnation of our Lord. 
The prayer being ended we continued our talk. It had been a long time since someone was thoughtful enough to interrupt a conversation for the sake of prayer. We moved easily from talk to praise in an easy and warm manner. 
They have a simple breakfast after Mass, dinner and an optional light collation in the evening. The Hermits and any retreatents all pickup their meals at a central location and dine in solitude with God. Again there appears the freedom for a hermit to adjust their fasting according to personal need while fulfilling the call to penance. 
Silence and solitude pervades the Laura from the time you enter till you grudgingly depart. It has a tangible, inviting sense to it.  
Once a week the hermits participate in a Day of Reclusion, where they do no other work but prayer, Lectio, etc. The day begins with the blessing of bread after mass that will sustain them for the day.They meet again at the next Mass. The opportunity for contemplation is great with these Hermits. 
They are quite proud that they offer more time for solitude than the Carthusians. Several hermits are former cloistered religious who will testify to the great difference of the eremitic life from the monastic. I have visited a number of monasteries and religious communities on a number of continents and I will look forward to going back. 
I have scheduled a retreat at the Laura. They strongly request that I bring only my Bible, breviary and/or a rosary, but no other books. The point of their retreats is that one encounters Jesus Christ in the desert, His word being one of the best highways into this desert. 
Retreatents are also asked to schedule time in their chapel for Eucharistic Adoration. I must admit my excitement at being there, soon. The Vatican's Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life have recently recognized the Hermits of Bethlehem here as a Laura of Consecrated Hermits of Diocesan Rite. 
They live under canon 603 and the approved Plan of Life of the Hermits. They have published two books through Alba House: The Way of Desert Spirituality, The Plan of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem and In the Silence of Solitude. 
They may be reached by the following address for vocational or retreat information:

The Hermits of Bethlehem 82 Pleasant Hill Road Chester, NJ 07930