A life of a solitary prayer and penance

Father John A. Kiley

The English word hermit comes from the Greek meaning desert or uninhabited. St. Paul of Thebes, St. Anthony of the Desert and St. Mary of Egypt were among the first Christians to embrace life as hermits. Inspired by the desert theology of the Old Testament where desert living brought about a change of heart and scandalized by the pagan society that surrounded them, these early Christians sold all and gave themselves over to a life of a solitary prayer and penance. Often, the hermit’s life evolved into the monastic life where meals, prayer and chores were shared. Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to hermits who are members of religious institutes, Canon Law 603 recognizes diocesan hermits under the direction of a bishop as good faith members of the Church’s consecrated life.

Christian hermits in the past have often lived in isolated cells or hermitages, perhaps a cave or a hut, situated in a desert or a forest. The early Christian desert fathers wove baskets in exchange for bread. In medieval times, hermits were also found within cities where they might earn a living as a gate keeper. Blessed Charles deFoucault was a gate keeper for Trappist nuns at Nazareth before heading to the Algerian desert. Among the religious orders of the Catholic Church the Carthusians and Camaldolese arrange their monasteries as clusters of hermitages where the monks live most of their days and most of their lives in solitary prayer and work, gathering only briefly for communal prayer and occasionally for community meals and recreation. Cistercians, Trappists and Carmelites, essentially communal in nature, allow members who feel called to a hermit’s life after living in the monastic community to move to a hermitage on monastery grounds.

An anchorite, from a Greek word meaning to withdraw, is similar to a hermit. An anchorite lives a solitary religious life, not in the wilderness as a hermit, but in the solitude of an anchor-hold or anchorage, usually a small cell, typically built against the side wall of a local church. In medieval times, the door of an anchorage was bricked up in a special ceremony conducted by the local bishop after the anchorite took up residence. Medieval churches survive that have a tiny window built into the shared wall near the church sanctuary to allow the anchorite to listen to Mass and receive Holy Communion. Another window looked out into the churchyard, enabling charitable neighbors to deliver food and other necessities. Clients seeking the anchorite’s advice might also use this window to consult them.

Typical of a hermit saint is the life of Saint Romuald, born in Ravenna, Italy, to the aristocratic Onesti family. As a youth, Romuald indulged in the pleasures of the world common to a tenth-century nobleman. At the age of 20 he witnessed his father kill a relative in a duel over property. Romuald, devastated, went to the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe to do 40 days of penance. Eventually Romuald became a monk there. His zealous correction of less zealous monks aroused such enmity that he applied for permission to retire to Venice, where he placed himself under the direction of a hermit named Marinus and lived a life of extraordinary severity. Later Romauld and Marinus erected hermitages close to a monastery at Cuxa. Romuald lived there for 10 years, taking advantage of the library to refine his ideas on monasticism. Next, he spent 30 years going about Italy, founding and reforming monasteries and hermitages. Again, he withdrew to the hermit’s life. In 1012, he arrived at the Diocese of Arezzo where a certain Maldolus gave him land known as the Campus Maldoli, or Camaldoli. St. Romuald built on this land five cells for hermits, which, with a monastery at nearby Fontebuono, became the motherhouse of the Camaldolese Order. Romuald died at the monastery at Val di Castro 1027. There are Camaldese hermits today at Big Sur in California.

St. Romauld himself mused fittingly on the desert experience: “Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.” Archbishop Cosmo Francesco Ruppi concurs: “Interiorization of the spiritual dimension, the primacy of solitude and contemplation, the slow penetration of the Word of God and the calm meditation on the Psalms are the pillars of Camaldolese spirituality…”

And such is the heart of any wilderness or desert experience.