|| Hermetical life blooms and calls new
By DOROTHY VIDULICH
When Christianity's first hermit, St. Paul, born in Upper Egypt in 228, went off to the Theban desert to live in penance, prayer and solitude for 90 years, he probably did not ponder the fact that his would be the model for a lifestyle that 1,800 years later continues to attract women and men.
To most, hermits are part of an ancient past, a people who don't know how to interact with the rest of humankind. But the eremetical life has periodically blossomed throughout the world. In the U.S. deserts and wooded wildernesses, it is blossoming again.
The spirit of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Trappist monk, hermit and spiritual master, hovers over much of the U.S. movement.
But there are others. Julian of Norwich, born in 1342, spiritual guide and writer who lived through the Hundred Years' War and the outbreaks of the black plague, in recent years has been reclaimed for her contributions to feminist spirituality.
She was an anchoress, a woman who chose a life of solitude and prayer, always addressing God as mother and comforter. Seven hundred years later, with the 21st century on the doorstep, hermits are on the increase. And they no longer fit into miscast stereotypes as loners or antisocial recluses.
"A hermit is not a person running away from something," said Dominican Fr. Bede Jagoe, "but a person running toward something. He or she seeks isolation that will provide solitude, silence and time for prayer in seeking a deeper relationship with God."
Jagoe, director of missions for the Chicago-based Dominicans, lived 23 years in Nigeria in a hermitage by a bayou tree on the banks of the Niger. "Dominican as I am," he explains, "I realized I could preach best from a contemplative stance." Last year, Jagoe, who edits MARABOU, the quarterly newsletter for hermits and those interested in the hermit's life, sent out a questionnaire.
The responses revealed great diversity among those who choose the eremetical life given, said Jagoe, that this is only a random sampling. Of the 129 initial respondents, 85 were hermits, 18 aspired to be hermits and 17 were interested in hermit life. There was a 2-to-1 ratio of women to men. Time lived as hermits varied from six months to 35 years.
The majority were single (two widowed). Twelve were hermits while remaining members of religious orders; 20 were hermits with private vows or promises. Some receive financial support from Social Security benefits, inheritance or religious community support.
Most hermits indicated they survive financially through a combination of support from donations and earned income from creative work such as handweaving, pottery, art work, writing, home business and manual labor.
While many hermits choose rural areas and isolated parts of the country for simple living, they are also found in urban areas. They include university students, teachers, librarians, professionals. Although the new Code of Canon Law recognizes the revival of hermit life in the church, eremetical life is scarcely a ministerial option. Most bishops are reluctant to release priests from active ministry to pursue a hermit life.
Loretto Sr. Jane Marie Richardson, who in 1976 founded Cedars of Peace as a hermitage setting on the grounds of the Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky., said there is a growing interest in the life and that more options are available now than 20 years ago.
"This interest is in some ways a response to what is happening in American culture vis-a-vis world culture," said Richardson. "People who come to Cedars are very knowledgeable and most conscientious about their responsibilities. This sense of social justice is very much rooted in Christ, in the gospel."
The majority of hermits make a life commitment, sometimes with vows or promises. Some people choose it as a time of deep transition into a new ministry.
Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, author and speaker, said he spent eight years "playing the hermit" while living alone in inner-city Albuquerque until one day he opened scripture to Micah the prophet "yelling at me, 'Get up, be off, there is no rest for you.' " At age 52, he left the hermitage to found the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Karen Karper, author of books and articles about hermits, was a sister in the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration for 37 years. She lived as a hermit in Spencer, W.Va., for six years until she left the Clares in July 1996.
She moved to North Carolina and is now engaged to be married. "I still value the ideals of the eremetical life," said Karper, "and continue to maintain a contemplative rhythm amid these wooded mountains." She and her fiance have started a fiber arts center, Faith Keepers Originals, in Hot Springs, N.C.
Edwina Gateley, founder of the Volunteer Missionary Movement, described her decision to seek an answer to what God was calling her to. "I got an old trailer, put it in a forest in Yorkville, Ill., and stayed in prayer and solitude for nine months until God finally spoke."
She knew then that she must work with women prostitutes and went out and founded the Chicago's Genesis House.
What is the lure, the attraction, the temptation of the eremetical life? Thomas Merton described the need "to withdraw from the babel of confusion in order to listen more patiently to the voice of the conscience and the Holy Spirit. And by their prayers and their fidelity," said Merton, hermits "will invisibly renew the life of the whole church."
After 90 years in the desert, St. Paul left behind no such thoughts. But he is known by two symbols found in Pauline monasteries today: a palm tree that provided leaves for his attire and a raven that brought him bread.
Today's hermits are usually slightly better dressed and probably somewhat better fed.
National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996