29 August 2018

Followup Question: Ancient and Contemporary Hermits, Ancient and Contemporary Asceticism

[[Dear Sister, in the history of hermit life isn't it true that hermits went out into the wilds without ways to support themselves and often had to live barebones, subsistence lives? Are hermits today not allowed to do this? I am asking because you have criticized the living arrangements of a lay hermit who seems to have taken on a project much like ancient hermits might have done and had no one to assist her. I think of some of these hermits as heroes and find their motivation completely inspiring, especially if they felt drawn into the desert by the Holy Spirit and were faithful to that call. So what is the difference between the situation you wrote about recently and these more ancient vocations? Isn't this kind of asceticism acceptable any longer?]]

Thanks for your questions and your very good points. First, let me say I generally agree with you about the ancient hermits you refer to. That is especially true if we are talking about folks like the Desert Mothers and Fathers from @ the 3rd-4th Centuries, the original Carthusians, the Camaldolese, etc. All of these hermits lived eremitical lives of serious asceticism and poverty. The deserts they entered required they make do with what they had at hand and that they live their faith commitments in and through such circumstances. Today the Carthusians continue to live similar lives --- though ordinarily in established Charterhouses with the basic means for healthy lives given to God alone. While people reading the stories of these hermits today might not understand what motivated or motivates them, I think most would find the accounts of their lives and foundations to be powerful witnesses to being driven by something greater than ordinary life seems to provide. One may not understand what moved these hermits but I think most would admire their courage and persistence.

What moves me most when I read or read about these ancient and contemporary hermits is that the hardships they lived, the asceticism they undertook all fade into the background in light of the reasons they undertook these things and their accounts of what they found in their quests. Specifically, the circumstances in which they found themselves did not detract from their eremitical lives, nor were they the focus of these lives; they were a part of the soil in which these lives were fruitful. As a result these hermits (or those who author the accounts we have of their lives) write not primarily about the difficult, even miserable conditions in which they found themselves but about the God who held them securely in spite of these conditions and the struggles they required. More, they do so in ways which are coherent and compelling. In other words, they lived lives faithful to their sense of God's call; they prayed assiduously and worked and grew in their gratefulness to God. They assisted one another, were faithful to a call to solitude and, when a situation was truly unlivable or manifestly unhealthy, they moved on and lived their call elsewhere. So, while asceticism was essential and sometimes simply unavoidable anyway it was the eremitical or "desert life" itself in which one is fulfilled in God which was the focus of their efforts; it is this redemptive content that is the compelling and clear center of their witness --- their living, writing, apothegms, and the accounts of those who write about these hermits.

The questions I had been asked earlier focused on the role of the diocese in allowing a diocesan (solitary consecrated Catholic) hermit to live in uninhabitable, and even harmful situations or circumstances. What I tried to stress was that a diocese will allow a hermit she has publicly professed to purchase and remodel a house in order to have a hermitage, but that it cannot become a fulltime project which detracts from the hermit's ability to live her Rule or to live a fully and abundantly human life --- especially in the long term. Dioceses can and do allow hermits to build hermitages but they also require prudence in the details. This is only appropriate. Remember that dioceses have to discern the nature and quality of the vocation in front of them; beyond this they must supervise, protect, and nurture such vocations. If an individual is going into substantial debt, living a more and more isolated life, and injuring themselves or exacerbating existing conditions and illnesses needlessly all in the name of creating this "hermitage" then something has gotten skewed, namely, the living of a healthy eremitical life itself has lost its priority and been replaced by concern for one's hermitage itself.

A hermit can make a hermitage of almost any habitable dwelling place. I am thinking now of a chapter written by a Trappist hermit at the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY. (Paul Quenon, OCSO, In Praise of the Useless Life, A Monk's Memoir) In this section devoted to the "Our Golden Age of Hermits" at the Abbey, the author describes the great variety of hermitages found on the Abbey grounds in the years following Thomas Merton's death. Besides Merton's own cinderblock hermitage, hermitages were built in a variety of places out of a variety of materials. Fr. Flavian's was built of cedarwood and was small and isolated but with large small-paned windows taking up most of a couple of walls; Dom James' hermitage (which was designed and built for him after his years of service as Abbot by one of the brothers) was constructed with three wings constructed of steel and glass and cantilevered from a concrete base. The base contained the kitchen, bedroom, and bath, while one wing was the chapel, another a porch and entrance, and a third a living room. As one approached the hermitage from the Abbey all one could see was a pyramid of stone with a slot for a window. (Dom James retired to this hermitage that was a 30 minute drive from the main abbey buildings. He was notably frugal in terms of heating and other expenses, including food; later he was assaulted by intruders and moved back to the abbey infirmary where he would be safe from additional harm.).

Br Odilo built a hermitage from scraps from other projects; some monks lived in trailers, one in an old "pig house"; Brother Rene's 16'X8' hermitage was made from the scraps of wood left over after the abbey monks made cheese boxes and it was roofed with corrugated metal; it had neither electricity nor running water but it provided the place where Br Rene could pray and rest in solitude as his own life required. His regular physical needs were taken care of in the abbey itself so the extreme poverty of the hermitage was not problematical in this way. I am also reminded of a contemporary Camaldolese who, in setting up a solitary hermitage, decided to convert a utility shed of the type used today for tools, etc. He rents living space from another person, but the shed is his hermitage and allows him time and space in privacy and solitude; it is snug and comfortable for this use, but it is not habitable and he will spend no time making it so.

Folks hearing the story of any of these hermits would rightly wonder if that story focused on the details of the hermitage, the struggle to build it, the terrible expense and injuries incurred in its building, the hermit's exacerbated chronic pain and illness occasioned by the conditions of his solitude. The point, of course, is that the hermitage itself was of less concern than the call to the silence of solitude and the life of solitary prayer. People find or build a place they can live such a life, but they do not give over years of their lives building the hermitage at the expense of their health or the life they are committed to live in the process. A diocesan hermit's diocese/bishop would never allow this, nor should they I think.

Simplicity? Sacrifice? Asceticism? Frugality? Yes, of course. But these will necessarily involve limitations on the time and energy spent on the hermitage itself. If versions of these are embraced in a way which detracts from one's ability to live the very life they are committed to living, no diocese would or should permit it. Similarly, I also think it is prudent of dioceses to insist that diocesan hermits have a reliable way to support themselves. Dioceses may (but are not required to) assist in times of emergency and temporary need but it is important that the hermit be responsible for her own support and legal decisions --- not least so dioceses are not to be left liable for expenses, injuries,  etc., when something untoward happens.

Again, this is all about living and protecting a vocation which is a gift of God. Not all historical forms of asceticism have been edifying, nor have all forms of suffering or isolation. It seems to me that we are more sensitive today to what are healthy forms of these, or what are forms which speak primarily of redemption rather than of sin/brokenness; it also seems to me that the Church, in approving certain eremitical vocations and disapproving others demonstrates this sensitivity and insists that canonical or public eremitical vocations witness to the redemption that comes to each of us through and in Christ.  I hope this is of assistance to you.