Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hermits, anchorites, recluses...


In plain view.
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I sometimes think the renewed interest in eremetical life in our time began with the facinating story of Blessed Charles of Jesus (de Foucauld) whose memorial is kept on December 1.  Before his expedition into the desert, hermits in the Latin Church were more or less relegated to the Carthusians and Camoldolese.  Only in the Camaldolese was the medieval practice of reclusion still available, otherwise that particular way of life ceased to be observed in the West - though the Orthodox maintained a somewhat vigorous solitary eremetic life all along into our own day.

Since the Council, and after the revisions to Canon Law, the hermit life (Can. 603) was re-instituted in the Latin Church.  Interestingly enough, I have always had spiritual directors who discouraged the hermit life or felt it was a mistake to reintroduce it in Canon Law - ironically, one of these SD lives as a diocesan hermit today.  Nevertheless, I took their precautions very seriously and was always rather dubious when I heard stories of increasing numbers of spiritual people running off to a hermitage in a woods, or at home.  I've known men and women who left monasteries to start their own Carthusian style hermitage, as well as men and women who just went off to live a hermit life - some canonically, others doing their own thing.  I've always had mixed feelings about the 'trend'.  The upside of so many years of pondering the matter is that I have come to understand exactly what I was not called to, which includes none of the above BTW, though others might consider me to be something of a recluse. 

I've known of urban hermits for many years of course, and I was interested in Sr. Laurel of Stillsong Hermitage from the first moment I read about her consecration/profession a few years ago.  I was very skeptical at first - I had some stereotypical old fashioned ideas about what a contemporary hermit should be - although if they could measure up to my ideals they would be roaming the desert naked.  Instead, what I have learned from reading Sr. Laurel is that an urban hermit's external life may differ from the barren asceticism of the desert, nevertheless it is a real vocation and an authentic form of consecrated solitary life in the Church.
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Anyway - if you are interested in the subject, I suggest you visit her blog - she writes well about the vocation.  I would post some entries she's written but I'm unable to copy and paste from her blog.  Visit her at Notes From Stillsong Hermitage
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Coincidently, yesterday the Holy Father spoke of the famous medieval anchorite, Julian of Norwich: 
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"Inspired by divine love, Julian made a radical choice,” Pope Benedict stated. “Like an ancient anchoress, she chose to live in a cell located near the church of St. Julian in the city of Norwich.”

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He explained that “anchoresses,” or recluses, dedicated themselves to prayer, meditation and study within their cells.
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“In this way they came to acquire a very delicate human and religious sensibility which led to their being venerated by the people,” the Pope explained, adding that “and men and women of all ages and conditions, in need of counsel and comfort, devotedly sought them out.”
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Those who choose to live apart from the world and devote their lives to prayer, the Pope observed, are “friends of God.”
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“Women and men who chose to withdraw and live in the company of God acquire, precisely because of this choice, a great sense of compassion for the suffering and weakness of others,” he said."Thus I think with admiration and gratitude" that today's monasteries of cloistered men and women "are oases of peace and hope, a precious treasure for the entire Church."
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Recalling St. Julian's book, titled "Revelations of Divine Love,” Pope Benedict said the work contains “an optimistic message based on the certainty that we are loved by God and protected by His Providence.”
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She “compares divine love with maternal love,” he added. “This is one of the most characteristic messages of her mystical theology. The tenderness, solicitude and sweetness of God's goodness towards us are so great that to us, pilgrims on the earth, they seem as the love of a mother for her children.” - CNA
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Note:  While searching for a photo to illustrate this post I came upon an interesting order of nuns in Quebec called the Recluse Sisters - I've never heard of them before.
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Art:  Anchoress

7 comments:

  1. elisabeta7:17 PM

    I had always thought that the life of a cloistured nun would be wonderful, but that the life of an anchorite would be very difficult to handle. Then I read the book "The Anchorhold" by Enid Dennis. How enlightening! Maybe we need more Julian of Norwiches in these crazy times of ours.

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  2. michael r.8:17 PM

    Good post, which offers a nice diversion from the other stuff. I look forward to exploring Sr's website. It seems to have lots of neat photos of the monastic/eremitic life.

    I suspect that Thomas Merton did more than anyone to interest people in the idea of the hermitage. A couple of Merton's friends and fellow monks, in turning me away from entry to the Trappists, told me to go to the Carthusians or Camoldolese. They seemed to think it would be easier for someone like me..... :)

    A priest that I corresponded with told me that he thought the life was not for anyone. He had been a Carthusian, high up in the Order; having lived at Transfiguration, St. Hughs and the Grande Chartreuse. He was a consultant to McGuire on her Infinity book. He thought it was unhealthy for anyone to enter. He told me that. I always wonder about it. It was obviously unhealthy for him and for the majority, since they end up leaving. I'm certain that most people do have unrealistic romantic notions of what the eremitic life is about. I love the documentary Into Great Silence, but it didn't do much to dispel the myths. I love the way it was filmed, but it's almost as if it were filmed through gauze, which helps create that very mystique which seems so appealing. I think the McGuire book creates a better sense of what the life must really be like.

    I always find myself looking to count the number of crosses in monastic graveyards. There are very very few who persevere. At one period, Transfiguration had one monk living there. I've only been able to count a couple crosses, but the place has been there now for sixty years?

    Terry, I wish you would share more of your own experiences of the monastic and eremitic life.... :)

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  3. Shhh, I think he's hibernating.

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  4. Michael - I forgot about Merton's aspirations and his eremetic life - yes, indeed - he would be the founder of the American eremetic movement I think. He lit the match. As much as I like him, personally I do not think he is the best example of a hermit.

    Perhaps I will write about my sense and experience - which is one failure after another, yet in a curious way, I have always been very much alone, living a very eremetical life in the middle of something. That said, so are many people in our society - I simply seek to sanctify my situation and ask for forgiveness and mercy for having nothing to offer, much less to show for it.

    I think your priest friend may have understood that the Carthusian vocation is not proved until one dies a monk. The Carthusian vocation is rare and limited to a few - Camaldolese? It depends upon the congregation.

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  6. Hi there,
    Many thanks for the kind words re my blog. It is true that the eremitical life is 1) not for everyone, and 2) not what people think it is really. Even for those desiring to become hermits some time is usually spent discovering the freedom of the vocation and that often means some degree of freeing oneself from stereotypes!

    As for Merton, I owe my vocation to him --- indirectly, that is --- for it was his book Contemplation in a World of Action that made me believe eremitical life was valid and vital. I had begun exploring Canon 603 but didn't believe much in the value of contemplative life. As for hermits, I thought they were all dead and long buried. But CWA opened my eyes and fired my imagination. Whether Merton was the best example of a hermit is debatable, but he knew what he was talking about. His foibles and failures are helpful to me though when I forget that God calls the weak and broken to follow him this way.

    All my best,
    Sister Laurel, Er Dio
    Stillsong Hermitage

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  7. Sister - thanks much for your comment. I shouldn't underestimate Merton - I think he has been responsible for many monastic vocations too. You are correct that God calls the weak and the broken. God bless you.

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