Translated from Spanish to English CuadMon 10 (1969) pp. 129-140.
There are some unusual references that seem to be out of place such as the saying by the hermit “Yo soy un Pedro de Alcántara – I’m a Peter of Alcantara” to which we can attribute no reason. Translations can be difficult at times and on this occasion it was decided to leave the comment unaltered in the hope that someone could shed light on it. The article was originally entitled “Un testimonio de vida eremítica” in CuadMon 10 (1969) pp. 129-140.
I took a path on the edge of a ravine that led to an abyss in the hill. The sun had recently appeared in the mountains and sometimes shone my way. As I climbed I left behind the sounds of civilisation and only heard the birds singing and the beating of my heart when I stopped. There were natural forests, rocks and sometimes some poplars that indicated a source of water. As I climbed, I said, I hope I finds him in his hermitage before he has gone to work on the fences. When I reached the summit, I saw a little house on the distance slope. It was built on the undulating landscape, overgrown with thorns as though to protect it from intruders, completely distant, solitary and silent. Suddenly I heard the bark of a dog. I said to myself: “I hope I do not get bitten by the hermit’s dog.” But at that moment there was a human ululation that silenced the dog. It was a local muleteer, from the manner of his idiolect, who was leading some animals. At that very moment, I made out another hut, somewhat further away. Leaving me in doubt as to which of the two would be the hermitage; I went to the first one I had seen. When I got there I understood that this was what I had been looking for. It was locked with an old style padlock, a small cross on the roof, painted green, a fireplace, I could smell of recent smoke from burnt logs, it was all in all a very small square house, some dry wood was stacked by the door: and that, was all. After some time, I made my way to the other house I had seen, which was in front of me, 800 meters away I could make out voices, probably from some muleteers. What did they think, who lived no less as little hermits themselves, about their professional neighbour? I wanted to ask them. When I arrived, another dog barked at me.
There were two men rigging mules; One was striking one of them. I greeted and introduced myself. We talked about their work: they sold firewood in the village: six hours of travel each day round trip. The sale of firewood was not very profitable at the moment because it was not cold yet and people did not buy much. What they earned was barely enough to live on, even more so with the cost of things nowadays. “Have you lived here for a long time?” I asked. “About five years, we arrived three years before the father who lives at the hermitage. And we like to live here.” “You are hermits too,” I told them. But they did not respond, “And what do you think of the father’s life?” “It’s his choice!” = Replied one immediately. “He himself built his hut and works mending fences; He built a very long stone cairn that climbs up there on the hill. Since the owner of the other farm did not want to set the boundary, he did it. Hard work!” I told him that the drought seemed like God’s punishment “Of course!” He replied. “because now people do no believe in anything! The father has to go around mending fences; Maybe he’ll come to his hut later. If you want, continue on this path and you will find him on the way, if not, wait for him by his hut. Yesterday I saw him with a pole on his shoulder and today I saw his fresh footsteps near the water springhead. I hope the water does not dry out with this drought,” he added. When I said goodbye I asked the name. “Ah!” He answered me. “And you?” I asked the other. But the first one replied: “It’s my brother, P.A.” He immediately asked me: “You. know the player P.A., on the first team of the U? It’s his son!” He finished with a certain amount of pride. I then started to look for the Father. No signs of him. I even lost the orientation of his hermitage. In the distance, the sound of an airplane could be heard. On top of a post I saw the remains of fresh meat and a number of feathers on the ground: perhaps a bird of prey had satiated its previous night’s hunger a few moments ago. Great silence and loneliness. Finally I spotted the hermitage again. I went there and sat down to wait. It was close to noon. Some advancing clouds where rolling down the mountain range which could be the first rain of this year. The drought had cracked the land in some places. At about midday of the day, I heard noise behind me; A door was opened. I turned and saw a man I was looking for, he was as thin as a rake and tall his deportment was one of serenity and irreproachability which radiated from his very person. He wore a blue shirt and trousers; on his face a white sideburns with several days of growth. He looked at me curiously. He left some tools on the floor. I greeted him and identified myself. He invited me to his hermitage and offered me lunch. “I have rice! want some?”
“The other meal would take about two hours,” he said, showing me some beans that he took out of a package. “ I have a good stomach and I can eat anything,” I replied. “I will make rice then” he concluded. With elongated gestures he began to move and look for what he needed for the meal. From a rock that was part of the interior of the hermitage, he removed a cover that hid a crack in the rock and that was used to store things to eat. “I spend eight dollars a month,” he said, beginning to pull things out of the hole in the rock. “An apple for everyone” he said loudly. “Bread, this bread must be older than a week, because I brought it from the monastery last Sunday and who knows when it was bought to the monastery”. (My visit to the hermit took place on a Friday). “But, if you want, we’ll toast it; so it is better.” “Good”. I answered. I forgot to mention that the upper part of the rock served as an altar. He also took some oil and pepper. I, noted to myself, while I was taking notes — I had told him beforehand why I was doing this — he was not so poorly provisioned; there was not an abundance, but at least he had the essentials; It was a sign, that gave me the impression, that this hermit did not despise his own life, but with all simplicity put himself at the service of God in solitude. He built a fire, always with prolonged movements. Water from a demijohn to a pot, rice and other ingredients. Everything prepared quietly. Then he put some water in a jar for tea. “There are two tea bags here,” he said, putting them on a small table by his wooden pallet bed. He removed another cover in the stone recess and the silverware appeared. There were several books on the table. A copy of the Old Testament in Hebrew.
While the food was being prepared and washed, we started talking. I would like to stay here until the end of my life, unless something particular comes along like communism and I have to leave. Before arriving here, I met with your neighbours, I said. Yes, the A., he answered; Did you know, he continued, that P.A. Is the son of one of the player? When I arrived here, they lived near the water fountain. Every time I went for water, their dogs would bark at me. I did not like their presence, and since the farm did not need them and I needed silence and solitude, I asked them to leave. They moved house, to where they are now. I would definitely like them to leave. So they are not very close friends of yours? I asked. No, he said smiling. At that moment he got up and took the pot out of the fire: Brother X told me that it was necessary to leave the rice ten minutes out of the fire before eating it, he said. The conversation continued. He had been in monastic life for 23 years and a year and a half as a hermit here. I came to this country to be a hermit. In the monastery of my country of origin, there was too much noise and upheaval because they were rebuilding the monastery. But do not think that my reasons for becoming a hermit was because of the noise. I had set my heart on becoming a hermit many years ago. I believe that I am better suited to the eremitic life than to community life. I think my inherent qualities are hermitic by nature. Suddenly he exclaimed, rice is ready! He offered me the pot to serve me on my plate; I took some rice out and I was struck by the wonderful smell of rice. Nice aroma! I said. Yes, yes, he replied, I am a competent cook.
I’m a Peter of Alcantara; It is enough penance having to eat pure rice almost every day, he concluded calmly. Then he poured hot water into the tea pot. Here is the sugar, he said, passing me a jar. We continued talking after he blessed the food. I celebrate Mass every day and concelebrate every Sunday at the monastery. Visitors? No! You are the first this year, last year I was visited by a Spanish priest. I have asked the monks of the monastery not to mention me to their guests. But as you came, let us give thanks to God. I chose this place because it is very quiet and there is a water supply nearby. There is a lot of work to do here, and I can do it perfectly and better than a salaried worker; You know how it is when you have no one to watch over you! Here I spend my life and there are weeks when I do not see anyone. In the morning I work fences and in the afternoon I read, I pray, I contemplate, I study. My Superior comes every week to see me and has lunch with me. He spends one hour here. It’s up to him. Usually when he makes his weekly retreat day he come here to do a spiritual conference
with me. But lately since he returned from Europe he has not come. Do I like the animals that walk around here? Yes. I think a rabbit used to eat all food scraps that I used leave outside every night. I’ve never seen the rabbit. But one day because of a hunter, he must have taken flight, as he never came back. On another day I was by the water fountain when suddenly a fox approached me only about two meters away, but then fled hastily. If I had owned a rifle I would have had several foxes hanging from the roof of my house. – He spoke with total tranquility – But more than animals I like geology and poetry. I like the Jesuit poet Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ more than Gabriela Mistral. I have tried to read Pablo Neruda, but my Spanish does not enable it. I read “Condorito” [little condor] but I thought it was another comic magazine, and he pointed out one that was on the table … it is far better because the author reveals a great knowledge of the psychology of contemporary man. But of course more than poetry I am interested in Sacred Scripture. I studied it for three years at the Biblical Institute and one year at the Angelicum in Rome. I taught it for four years at the monastery of my country of origin, until I decided to become a hermit. Then, I came, to this country, because my monastery had made a monastic foundation here.
I believe that the eremitical life has great prospects in the future. I think, also, that, relatively, there are many people in monasteries who feel the desire to live as hermits. Sometimes you cannot pray, think and live without some tensions in a monasteries. When one wishes to become a hermit, he often has to ignore the unpropitious opinions of some of the brothers regarding it; As for me, I think they are happy with my choice now. – Are you asking me about the conditions to be a hermit? Good. A great desire to live with God with a greater intensity than in ordinary life. With prayers that are not only implicit but explicit. I would say that it is a specialisation in prayer. For this I believe that the methods of prayer used by the oriental religions can be of use. And, of course, a very healthy psychological life. Look, mankind usually works and sees the fruits of his labours, but the hermit arrives before God with empty hands. It is a life of faith and love. Regarding what most attracts me to the Gospel, I will tell you that it is the Sermon of the Last Supper by Saint John. Where Jesus calls his disciples his friends. Then, smiling, he added: The Council speaks of servants, but Jesus speaks of friends. At that moment of the conversation, he bent down and took a broom from a corner and began to sweep the ashes off the fire. It is necessary that in the Church there are men who apparently do not do anything useful, he continued. Men who are not involved in the activities that the Church runs. You ask me about prayer! I have no secrets in prayer, I pray like every Christian. I really like the book “Spiritual Letters” by Dom John Chapman, an English Benedictine.
It seems to me that the difference in my prayer compared to that of other Christians is that with objectivity I commit more time to prayer, although subjectively a Christian in the world can pray just as I do. – The changes in the Church? The eremitical life is separate from the changes in the Church. It is essentially the same as in the Middle Ages or at its beginnings. I receive a magazines that informs me what is happening in the Church and in the world. There is a great change and many people are confused. I pray that people have light in the midst of current problems. Now, I consider it necessary for every Christian to know what is happening in the Church and in the world; I also consider it a necessity for the hermit, although I do not think it is necessary for him to dedicate himself to finding solutions to the problems. In my prayer I am very aware of the priests, because I know of the problems the current priesthood has and I have also known some difficult cases first hand. It is true that there is a tradition in the Church that considers monastic life as an angelic life, but today it seems necessary for monks to know all about these problems. As for the most important thing in the renewal of religious life, it seems to me, that it has to rediscover the evangelical spirit that encouraged the founder and for that spirit to adapt to the 20th century … of course this is a little vague! I believe that the eremitical life has the possibility of joining God almost in the same manner of angels, without the noises of monasteries and their distractions. Saying this, he got up, took a crude fly swatter that had a piece of rubber tied at the end, homemade, of course, and killed some flies that were on the glass. Who knows from where they entered, since the door and the window were closed. As he sat down again he told me: Flies are the only animals that distract me.
I thought it was time to end the visit and I told him so. Then he apologised if he had been unable to say more. Excuse me, too, if I did not say many things, he added. And finishing his apology, he told me, almost softly: There are other more intelligent hermits, like Father X, and Father Z., who can say things far more profound than I can.
He opened the door of the hermitage, took the pot and we went outside. After a few meters he bent down and began to clean it with water and ash. In Spring this place is very beautiful! It’s all green and parturient cows come here. Every day new calves appear that the cows are giving birth to. When I say goodbye to him, he tells me that he will pray for me and asks me to pray for him. He turned his back on me and returned quietly to his hermitage, as if nothing had happened. I started the return. It was 3 in the afternoon. The clouds had passed by. The sun filled everything again.
While walking I began to reflect. Evidently he was a very simple man, who loved and liked life; a normal man; neither shy nor extroverted; that loved and sought loneliness. He was not a thinker, he was not an intellectual light, but he was a man who prayed and a man of great common sense and discretion; I remembered that phrase he had told me: I do not have solutions for current problems, nor am I sufficiently informed to issue a categorical answer on problems such as the Vietnam War, the Humanae Vitae, etc. Do your people have an authoritative opinion about Humanae Vitae? I wonder. To make a judgment you must inform yourself first. I know the problems, but before them, I prefer to pray.
His simple way of speaking did not remember the charismatic fire of the Old Testament prophets or the one that one imagines would have existed in some great saints of history. No, none of that; I had met a man in whom the spectacular was not glimpsed. With a man of flesh and bone, with limitations just like every man. With a man whom the Spirit had led to solitude to live peacefully with God praying for his brothers men. The life of faith and love in him was a simple life. To penetrate his life, in the life of the Spirit of Jesus, it had to be done in faith and in love.