Thank you to everyone who participated in our 2016 Hermit Survey.
As usual, the idea was God’s, not mine, when He almost literally threw me on my back with rheumatic fever just after I turned thirty. I was a Poor Clare nun, living in a monastery I had joined in 1959. I’d given myself to the life with a passion that apparently exceeded my physical energy and suddenly, instead of bouncing back after a routine appendectomy, I was facing six months to a year of near bed rest. It was my first experience with solitude and I wasn’t charmed by it. No! I was just plain lonely and bored.
Still, when I had recovered sufficiently to rejoin the community for at least part of the time, I found myself longing for the quiet space of solitude where the Lord had often felt so close. My “answer” was a gradually increasing experience of fatigue and pain, finally diagnosed as fibrobyalgia. FM is a condition that waxes and wanes so there were frequent periods where I spent most of the day in my cell, following the community observances from a distance. I was surprised by how content I would feel during these quieter periods.
One day I read an article about eremitic life in “Review for Religous” and it seemed like Someone had pulled on a light cord. THIS IS IT! my spirit cried. “Oh, no, it’s not,” my heart said. “You are called to community life as a Franciscan and follower of St. Clare.” However, once I had “seen the light”, I could never be entirely satisfied. I struggled with myself, my spiritual guides, my sisters in religious life, and my horrified family over the next five years but, in the end, I followed the Light to an empty parish house in the mountains of West Virginia. When the bishop declined torenew my permission to stay there, I found refuge in a half-finished cabin in a “holler” which the owner had vacated with the law on his heels for growing and selling marijuana!
I settled into the challenges of learning to live without indoor plumbing (oh, those frozen trips to the outhouse!); pulling wagon loads of milk jugs filled with water from my neighbors; learning how to keep warm with wood heat, and trying to earn a living with my needle and typewriter (back in the day before computers were common). Six rich and fruitful years followed. Then the Lord knocked on my heart again, inviting me to join my life with Paul Fredette, the Catholic pastor of that West Virginia parish.
A new form of hermit life began – a shared one. To many, this may sound like a contradiction in terms and perhaps it is. But together we are nurturing contemporary hermit life around the world through Raven’s Bread Ministries and trying to be faithful to the mysterious God of our hearts.
I invite comments, discussion questions and personal sharing from readers of this brief account. Does any of this ring a bell with YOUR experience? Let us hear from you.
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I recently re-read one of the Resources that we offer on our website (www. ravensbreadministries.com) titled: A Protestant Hermit in Search of Inner Unity by Pierre Lederrey. Originally written in French and published in 2002, it was translated into English in 2003. Daniel Bourguet, the subject was at the time, prior of the Ordre des Veilleurs (The Order of Watchers- founded in 1923). What a perfect definition of the hermit life! Furthermore, the fraternity is without tangible organization or legal status. (How wise!) It considers itself to be an “invisible monastery” that helps each member deepen his or her spiritual life. About two hundred people are connected through it across the French-speaking world.
Bourguet says: “Our rule is very simple. It consists mainly in consecrating three moments of the day to meditation.” No liturgy is imposed, the intent being to allow each Watcher to remain within the biblical tradition he or she finds most comfortable. Indeed, belonging to your own tradition is one of the principles of the movement, which does not want to appear to be a new Church. Daniel will accept the title of being a “Reform anchorite.” But he addds, “I believe that there are as many definitions as there are people.” At that time, he had spent six years in a hermitage, a wooden hut without running water or electricity near St-Jean du Gard.
How much time he spends in solitude depends on how many knock on his door. He says: “One should not confuse my life with that of a recluse. My door is always open. Receiving others is an much a part of a hermit’s life as is being entirely a monk.” When no one is knocking on his door, Bourguet follows a rather precise schedule “in order to avoid useless distractions that remove me from contact with God.” Moments of prayer are interspersed among mundane tasks. His life is based on this centering with the Lord, a meditative state that flees worldly futilities in the spirit of the Desert Fathers.
Bourguet adds: “The search for inner unity, which is that of the monk – monos – meaning precisely that which is unified; note: it does not mean a disengagement from the world. I believe that the more one approaches the Father, the more one is open to others.”
I am entranced by the phrase, “The Order of Watchers”! It reminds me of Thomas Merton’s poem on St. John the Baptist or “On the Hermit Vocation”. The final stanza sums it up:
“Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied sermon.
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
with hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
Do any of these words ring bells in your spirit? Watcher? Listener? Waiter? For me, they all speak to the heart of the hermit calling. I would love to hear some commentaries on them!
(In August 1965, Thomas Merton was granted permission to live full-time in his hermitage. This is an excerpt from the last talk he gave to the novices before moving to the hermitage. Reflecting on “freedom from care” as essential for the monk and especially for the hermit, Merton touches on a theme that has relevance for all people.)
What does the solitary life mean? It is the same as all monastic life. There is one basic, essential thing in the monastic life and in the Christian life, the thing that we all seek in one way or another, and it is some assurance that it is possible in this kind of life to put away all care, to live without care, to not have to care. Now, what do you mean, “not have to care”? Not to say: “Well, I don’t care. I don’t care what they do. I don’t care if they say Mass in Chinese, they won’t faze me.” No, that’s not it. But the life of the world, in the bad sense of the word, is a life of care. It is a life of useless care. And it is a life of self-defeating care, because it is a life which cannot confront the inevitable fact of death. It is a life which is full of death, it has death built into it and it cannot get away from that fact. A life that is nothing but a straight line towards the grave and a lot of little circular lines to forget the grave as you travel towards the grave is a life of care, and it is a life of ever-increasing care and it is a life of frustration and futility,
Ideally speaking, the hermit life is supposed to be the life in which all care is completely put aside. First of all, because it is a death. It accepts death as a completely built-in fact of life. It is a death to society, it is a death to certain consolations of society, a death to certain kinds of support, and it is a renunciation even of care. A person doesn’t go into solitude simply to practice a lot of virtues. If that’s what is supposed to happen I’m probably not going to be able to make the grade. But you go into solitude in order to cast your care upon the Lord.
Here is this beautiful passage from Caussade about what I think that I am supposed to do, living up on top of that hill and what we are all supposed to do, one way or another: “Since God offers to take upon HImself the care of our affairs, let us once for all abandon them to His infinite wisdom, that we may never more be occupied with aught but Him and His interests.” Period. That is what the solitary life means. It is a life in which you no longer care about anything because God is taking care of everything. That is why you don’t have a great many contacts with the world, you’re not terribly occupied with a lot of people and a lot of works and projects; you are simply letting God take care of all those things. You cast your care upon the Lord. (From Thomas Merton, Essential Writings- Selected by Christine M. Bochen)
So? What do you think? Does he have a point? Is he suggesting that we stop caring for and about others?