But the fame of him went abroad the more, and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities. And he retired into the desert, and prayed. (Luke 5:15-16).
Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. (The Imitation of Christ Book I, Ch. 20).
In this teaching we will try to illuminate the specific elements of eremitical life:
- In part one – we will review the various forms of Christian consecration.
- In part two – we will specify the various forms of religious consecration.
- In part three – we will study the ecclesial texts on the eremitical life.
- In part four – we will present the particular charism of urban eremitism.
PART ONE: FORMS OF CHRISTIAN CONSECRATION
A. The Baptismal Consecration
All Christians, thanks to Baptism, are consecrated to the Father by Christ, through the Holy Spirit:
“For every high priest taken from among men (cf. Hebrews 5:1-5), is ordained for men in
the things that appertain to God, “and hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father” (Revelations 1:6; cf. 5:9-10). The fact the baptised are consecrated by rebirth and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, to be a spiritual home and a holy priesthood, and thus be able to offer in spiritual sacrifice all the human activities of the Christian, and announce the wonders of him who from the darkness He has called them into his marvellous light (cf. 1 Pt 2, 4-10)” (II Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 10). Baptismal consecration enables Christians to live as children of God, exercising the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
B. The priestly consecration
At the Last Supper, in conjunction with the Eucharist Christ instituted the ministerial priesthood:
During the Last Supper, Christ entrusted this sacrifice to the Church – the sacrifice of the new and eternal Covenant – as a Eucharist: the Sacrament of his Body and his Blood
under the species of bread and wine “in the manner of Melchizedek” (Psalms 110:4; cf. Hebrews 7:17). When he said to the Apostles: “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24) He commissions the ministers of this particular sacrament within the Church, which must be continued for all time, renewing and implementing the sacrifice He had offered for the redemption of the world, and these same ministers He orders to operate – by virtue of their sacramental priesthood – in his stead: “in persona Christi” (Letter of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II To Priests for Holy Thursday 1985).
The priestly consecration enables some Christians to serve the people of God with the love of Christ the Good Shepherd, in whose name we proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments and guide communities.
“The laying on of hands by the bishop, with the consecratory prayer, constitutes the visible sign of this ordination.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1538).
C. The Religious consecration
The lay faithful have as their specific but not exclusive characteristic, activity in the world; the clergy, ministry; consecrated men and women, “special conformity to Christ, chaste, poor and obedient.” (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 31). “This call is accompanied,
moreover, by a specific gift of the Holy Spirit, so that consecrated persons can respond to their vocation and mission. For this reason, as the liturgies of the East and West testify in the rite of monastic or religious profession and in the consecration of virgins, the Church invokes the gift of the Holy Spirit upon those who have been chosen and joins their oblation to the sacrifice of Christ.” (John Paul II, Vita Consacrata, 30).
Religious consecration is expressed and realised through the profession of the three evangelical counsels – chastity, poverty and obedience – and has the “duty of making somehow present the way of life which Jesus himself chose and indicated as an absolute eschatological value.” (John Paul II, Vita Consacrata, 29). Consecrated persons remind all the baptised who, whilst not explicitly called to effectively and materially live the evangelical counsels, must nevertheless embrace them both emotionally and spiritually (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31), knowing that it is the best form of life, as it is the one who has chosen Christ and that it will be the condition of all in eternal beatitude..
PART TWO: FORMS OF CONSECRATED LIFE
By simplifying one can classify the various forms of “special consecration” having the experience of Christ as a guideline (A: Christological classification), or by way of assuming profession through the counsels of the Church (B: Canonical classification).
A. Christological classification
The form of life embraced by Christ was lived by Him in divine perfection, so those who follow in his footsteps through a special consecration can imitate only one aspect; this explains the great variety of charisms, which are the origins of the forms of consecrated life “in the strictest sense”. We can group the variety of charisms into three great scions:
1. The contemplative consecrated life:
a. This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ, who retires to pray in solitude.
b. It gives pre-eminence to the relationship with God, and in organising one’s daily life as a direct function of the meeting Him in solitude, in silence and prayer (Sacred liturgy and prayer).
i. Religious Communities (Benedictines, Camaldolese, Carmelites, Carthusians, Clares).
2. The active or Apostolic consecrated life
a. This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ, which inaugurates the Kingdom of God with his public ministry with preaching the Gospel, of liberation from evil and healing from disease.
b. It gives a place of importance to the direct relationship with our neighbour, in order to serve them in their spiritual needs (education, evangelisation) and their corporal (poverty and sickness).
i. Community Religious (e.g.: Camillians, Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Salesians, Comboni Missionaries and the Canossians, etc.).
ii. Consecrated Virgins.
3. The secular consecrated life
a. This form of consecrated life imitates and represents Christ who shares in all (particularly the humble and ordinary thirty years of His life in Nazareth) the condition of life of His contemporaries, working for the salvation of the world in an unseen manner (such as yeast leavening in dough) doing every single thing in filial communion with the Father’s will.
b. Establishes to live in the various activities of the world, with the goal (assumed with faith and love, but without publicly declaring their specific consecration) to guide them according to the will of God and in the evangelical spirit.
c. Those who embrace it live at the same time:
i. Community aspects:
– They are placed in Institutes with regular meetings for training, sharing and decision-making;
– They have daily contacts in their work environment;
– They can live in fraternities or with a family (where no one, however, will know that they are consecrated persons).
ii. Solitary aspects:
– They do not ordinarily share in the daily prayers and fraternal life of the members of their own Institute;
– They can live alone.
B. Canonical classification
Since the life of special consecration belongs to the Church as a constitutive and precious reality, the Pastors have established some norms to favour authenticity and stability; these norms are gathered in the Code of Canon Law, Book II (the People of God), Part III: Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (canons 573–746).
Starting from the canonical norms we can classify the various forms of consecrated life considering
a. The method of adopting the evangelical counsels; from this perspective we can discern:
i. Religious Institutes, in which the three evangelical counsels are decide on by public votes.
ii. Secular Institutes, in which the three evangelical counsels are taken with votes that remain reserved.
iii. The consecrated Virgins, who publicly assume only the vow of chastity.
iv. Societies of apostolic life, in which the evangelical counsels are not generally adopted by votes.
b. Relations between consecrated persons; from this point of view we can distinguish those who live:
i. In brotherhood, as in religious Institutes of active life and in Societies of apostolic life.
ii. In community, reserving spaces and times appropriate to solitude, as in religious institutes of contemplative life.
iii. In solitude, separated from the world and from other solitary (hermits in the strictest sense of the word).
c. The ecclesiastical authority competent in admitting consecrated persons; from this point of view we can distinguish the forms of consecrated life by right:
i. Diocesan, when they are recognised by the diocesan Bishop (Religious institutes at the beginning of their experience or small in numbers; Consecrated Virgins; Hermits).
ii. Pontifical, when recognised by the Apostolic See (Religious institutes whose charism leads them to operate beyond the boundaries of the Diocese, and who are numerically important).
Hermits are consecrated persons who have a contemplative charism, who live in solitude (both with regard to the world and with respect to other hermits) and who take the three evangelical counsels by professing them publicly in the hands of the diocesan Bishop.
PART THREE: ECCLESIAL TEXTS ABOUT EREMITIC LIFE
The Magisterium of the Church offers us the following three texts on the eremitic life. Code of Canon Law, can. 603 – (January 25, 1983)
§1. In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance..
§2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction..
Catechism of the Catholic Church, pt. I., sec. II., ch. III., n. 921. (October 11, 1992).
921. They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One..
John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, nos. 7 and 42 – (March 25, 1996)
7. Men and women hermits, belonging to ancient Orders or new Institutes, or being directly dependent on the Bishop, bear witness to the passing nature of the present age by their inward and outward separation from the world. By fasting and penance, they show that man does not live by bread alone but by the word of God (cf. Matthew 4:4).
Such a life “in the desert” is an invitation to their contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord.
42. […] Hermits, in their profound solitude, do not withdraw from ecclesial communion but serve that communion by their specific charism of contemplation..
From these ecclesial texts, which proffer both an instruction and a rule, we can draw a profile of the eremitic charism, i. considered in the particular commentary, ii. in its ecclesial relationship and iii. in its spirituality.
I. SPECIFIC NOTES
a. For a consecrated person to be a hermit, he must live “through a stricter withdrawal from the world“ (can. 603 §1). This separation makes this particular exterior solitude possible, which implies detachment from creatures and hidden from the eyes of men: it is the “desert” of the Catechism n. 921. External solitude favours external silence..
b. Exterior silence supports inner silence, that is the contemplation and peace that derive from detachment (not thinking about it, not worrying, not desiring) from creatures; this separation cannot and must not be absolute (we have need of others and this is also true for hermits that the heart of Christian life is the love of God, verified with the love for our neighbour), but if it is not an effectual detachment, then there is no eremitic life.
c. Interior silence facilitates the reciprocity of love with the Lord, which is the vocation of every Christian (cf. Ephesians 1:4-5), but the hermit must do so progressively:
- profound: is the “personal intimacy with Christ” of which the Catechism speaks, n. 921;
- exclusive: “because He is everything for him” (Catechism n. 921); the hermit together with his vocation receives a particular grace which enables a maturity in divine love by withdrawing from human affairs as much as possible and to immerse oneself totally in the relationship with God in Christ;
- continuous: this continuity is indicated “to be always with the Lord” in Consecrated Life n. 7 and in “continuous prayer” in canon 603 §1. .
From the relationship of love with the Lord Jesus, which inserts us into His Mystical Body, which is the Church, the hermit therefore obtains the necessary ecclesial relationship.
II. ECCLESIAL RAPPORT
a. The hermit receives everything that enables him to be a disciple of Christ from the Church: the proclamation of the Gospel, the grace of the Sacraments, the service of the Pastors who guide him in the truth and in the will of God and a reciprocal edification of mutual love within the Communion of Saints.
b. From the Church the hermit receives the authoritative instruction to enable him to live his particular vocation authentically (cfr. three specific ecclesial texts mentioned above, together with all the fundamental indicators that are given for each form of consecrated life).
c. The hermit receives from the Bishop of his local Church (Diocese):
- the last discernment of his vocation;
- the approval of his Rule of Life (canon 603 §2);
- the possibility of publicly professing the three evangelical counsels into his hands (canon 603 §2);
- the possibility of living in obedience, and having him as a legitimate Superior (canon 603 §2).
d. The hermit donates to the Church:
- the spiritual service of intercession incorporating prayer (similar to Moses on the mountain) and sacrifice (similar to Christ on the Cross);
- a testimony of the priority of the love for God and of the “temporary nature of our current times” (Vita Consecrata, no. 7).
a. The hermit believes that love received from God and given back to Him is the supreme vocation of man. He believes that only in a relationship with Christ can this vocation be fulfilled.
b. The hermit accepts the need to be separated from the world as a mysterious initiative from God, trusting that with his vocation He gives the necessary help. He believes that Christ “satisfies” his transformation into being a saint in love; he is confident that becoming increasingly holy gives conjointly to the Church and world, a help that is incalculable.
c. The hermit bravely embraces the mortifications that are tied to his vocation (penances established by the Rule and unforeseen penances), knowing that he has to combat relentlessly denying his self admiration, therefore like Jesus and Mary becoming a absolute filial “Yes” with the love of the Father.
d. The hermit remains ever vigilant to be humble (in his life everything is a gift where nothing is acquired once forever), faithful (obedience to the Rule is the surest way to persevere in God’s will) and grateful (even when the way it is narrow, God has reserved the best part for him: Luke 10:42, a most magnificent inheritance: Psalms 15:6).
PART FOUR: URBAN EREMITISM
IS IT POSSIBLE?
At first sight the hermit’s life and the city seem to be self-contradictory, for the simple
reason, that a city is composed of many people who live together, whilst a hermit is called to live in solitude.
In reality solitude is also possible in a city because:
- many people do live alone (32% of housing stock in the Canterbury Kent area are single occupancy); this may be by choice (young people who leave the parental home to be self-sufficient) or by necessity (separated or divorced people, the elderly);
- being immersed in a crowd can produces the experience of anonymity: people who intersect each other have no name and mostly do not forge personal relationships, even when an exchange of information or services occurs.
The hermit can live alone in the city because:
- they can find sufficiently quiet self contained accommodation;
- they can limit their “outings” to the strictly necessary (especially with online shopping using companies like amazon etc.);
- they can go quite inconspicuously through a crowd (“relatively” but not entirely, due to their dress, nevertheless most people are mostly in a hurry and are concerned about their own affairs).
It is clear, however, that the city is not the best place for a hermit because:
- it is not possible to enjoy complete silence;
- There are several circumstances for distractions or interruptions;
- there is a need to take into account additional stress because:
- i.the possibilities of getting around are reduced because of the need for solitude;
ii. lack of beneficial contact (for body and soul) with nature.
Since the city is not the ideal environment for eremitic life, why do some hermits choose to live in the city?
To this question we can apply two answers:
1. From a personal point of view, a hermit chooses the path to live in the city het recognises that this is God’s will for him.
2. From a design point of view in that Divine Providence is realising for the salvation of all men, we can surmise that the good Lord places hermits right inside a city for:
- to remind men, who are so often absorbed by earthly and material things, that the greater gain in life (Matthew 16:26) is to fashion a love story with God, a love story:
- to which the hermit dedicates his total existence;
- that, alone, it will allow him to authentically love his neighbour;
- to witness to the disciples of the Lord and to all those who seek God, that solitude and silence:
i. are necessary for the interior life and for the prayer of everyone;
ii. that it is also possible in a city, dependant upon the particular circumstances of each individual;
iii. to suggest that purely out of necessity solitude can become a way of peace, communion and productiveness, if lived in the intimate friendship with Christ;
The eremitical life in the city, although difficult, is possible:
1. Because the good Lord through our vocation always gives us the grace to bring to fruition.
2. Expand on a Rule of Life (Code of Canon Law, can. 603 §2) with the consensus of the diocesan Bishop, who for the hermit becomes the ecclesial reference point, both for discernment and for any obedientiary restrictions.
3. Cultivating the “separation from the world” by means of:
- a solitary dwelling;
- the predisposition to concentrate the necessary egress throughout one half of the day, morning or afternoon;
- of an entire day in the desert once a week;
- a vigilant economy regarding meetings, relationships with family members, using the telephone, radio, newspapers and computer (for work) and not having television.
APPENDIX: THE “LAVRA” EXPERIENCE
WHAT IS A LAVRA
The Lavra or Laura were clusters of anchoritic cells or caves, inhabited by monks who, although living alone, gathered as disciples around the figure of an Elder, to regularly share experiences and prayer, especially the solemn liturgy of Saturday and Sunday. The term laura in Greek (Λαύρα ) means “narrow lane or alley” and was chosen based on the network of paths that connected the the individual cells of the hermits with one another to a central community site with a church and a refectory at its center.
THE BENEFITS OF A LAVRA
The Lavra, whilst respecting the specific aspects of the eremitic vocation, offers the hermits who adhere to it:
1. moments of community prayer and Lectio Divina;
2. an organic path of doctrinal and spiritual formation;
3. a simple, regular and concrete opportunity for fraternal sharing;
4. mutual economic support.
THE CANONICAL PROFILE OF THE LAVRA
Since every hermit has made a vow of obedience to the diocesan bishop, it is up to them to approve the constitution of Lavra and to watch over the activities. Owing to the fact that “separation” is the specific charism of a hermit, association with the Lavra must not lead to any canonical constraint, not even for a simple association of the faithful.
The Eremitic Life Paperback – 1 Jun 2006
In Praise of Hiddenness Paperback – 1 Jun 2006
Silence Paperback – 15 Dec 2010
When Silence Speaks: The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order Paperback – 21 Aug 2015