The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude

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Or one might explore how celibacy can create within one a holy solitude. These explorations must wait for another day.

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In Carmelite spirituality solitude is in creative tension with com-munity and with the ministries undertaken by community. From the beginning Carmel gave a special place to solitude but always as a solitude within community. Living the dynamic of solitude within community is Carmel's mission in the church, its perennial challenge, its key to ongoing reform and its way of challenging its members to stand in mindfulness before the living God even as some Carmelites serve the apostolic needs of God's people. Solitude, shaped variously in differing eras, has been a decisive factor in the life of prayer for anyone who is called to pray within or with the Carmelite family.

One way to track the evolution of Carmelite prayer is to trace how solitude was configured at different moments in Carmel's history, especially by classic figures in its tradition like the three Carmelite doctors of the church, Teresa, John and Therese. From their first location on Mount Carmel the Carmelites had inherited a desert spirituality which prized solitude.

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  • The desert dweller Abba Moses once said: The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains amongst men is like an unripe grape. The first Carmelites were conscious that they had settled in a land made holy by the presence of Jesus, who often sought solitude, and in a land made sacred by the monks of the deserts whose very name, monk, means to be alone.

    A modern interpreter of Carmel's prayer, Kilian J. To be occupied with God vacare Deo ; this is the spirit of the Order The thesis of this essay is that Carmelite prayer has grown and matured creatively whenever solitude has been nurtured. Solitude here does not mean the completely eremitic life where one lives totally alone.

    The Carmelites have never espoused a life divorced from community; in fact, in they expanded the communal aspects of their life so as to identify with the fraternity of the friars. Carmelite solitude has always been for the sake of inner solitude, a habit of deep inner mindfulness of the presence of a loving God. Physical solitude is for the sake of solitude of the heart or, as John of the Cross would say, for the sake of poverty of spirit, an emptiness to be filled by God's love. Carmelite prayer depends on the retrieval of a solitude that is faithful to the original charism of Carmel and at the same time is shaped by the signs of the times.

    Without discernment in each age, Carmelite prayer would not be ecclesial and contemporary. In every era the Holy Spirit shapes the life of the church and its religious communities according to a design that can be seen as an ongoing epiclesis.

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    This is a calling on the Holy Spirit to weave the threads of the Carmelite tapestry according to God's will. Carmelite solitude has been and is lived in various manifestations, that is, in one way by cloistered Carmelite nuns, in another by apostolic Carmelite sisters, then again by the friars and in other ways by lay Carmelites and by anyone who turns to Carmel for inspiration.

    As Saint Paul taught, every charism is for the sake of the whole community 1 Cor Cannel's paradox of solitude and community is a gift to be shared with all who seek to live attentively in God's presence. It is impossible to report in a brief essay the whole story of Carmel's retrievals of solitude during the eight hundred years of the order's existence. I shall indicate only some special moments in that history that illustrate the connection between solitude and Cannel's life of prayer. Solitude makes one free for the guidance of the Holy impossible for the Latins in the Holy Land.

    By some of the Carmelites were migrating to the West and found themselves in places like Cyprus, Sicily, England and France. In this way these ascetics overcome the secular stereotypical view of a hermit who is perceived as a dubious misanthrope or as a rare anecdote of inimitable holiness on top of a mountain, of whom something is only known after having painstakingly searched to discover him. This choice, considered with the spiritual director and with other hermits, must be described in the Rule of life together with its effects on the ecclesial and penitential everyday life.

    A hermit will only be suitable in the place that the Lord prefers for him and which are suggested to the hermit by many pointers and clues. Urban hermits, have always existed but have seen a great increase in modern times, embracing with determination the mortifications linked to their vocation, both predictable and unpredictable.

    By establishing their hermitage in a city, they undergo a tiring penitential formation and Christian virtues , imparted by chance by those citizens who show themselves hostile toward the faith or toward the ascetical life style. In fact, they induce the city hermits to face their true inclinations, humility or pride , to give a name to what really stirs within their heart and thus examining the ascetical path that they are undertaking, more effectively than he would dare to make a severe hermit or an inflexible religious superior.

    Stephen his glory, if not those who stoned him? Consecrated persons are being asked to bear witness everywhere with the boldness of a prophet who is unafraid of risking even his life… Consecrated persons will be faithful to their mission in the Church and the world, if they can renew themselves constantly in the light of the word of God.

    Thus will they be able to enrich the other faithful with the charismatic gifts they have received and, in turn, let themselves be challenged by the prophetic stimulus which comes from other sectors of the Church. In this century, as in other periods of history, consecrated men and women have borne witness to Christ the Lord with the gift of their own lives. Thousands of them have been forced into the catacombs by the persecution of totalitarian regimes or of violent groups, or have been harassed while engaged in missionary activity, in action on behalf of the poor, in assisting the sick and the marginalised; yet they lived and continue to live their consecration in prolonged and heroic suffering, and often with the shedding of their blood, being perfectly configured to the Crucified Lord.

    Vita consecrata To tend towards holiness: this is in summary the programme of every consecrated life, particularly in the perspective of its renewal on the threshold of the Third Millennium. The starting point of such a programme lies in leaving everything behind for the sake of Christ cf.

    Eremitism |

    Matthew , , 27 ; Luke , preferring him above all things, in order to share fully in his Paschal Mystery. The hermits in the Latin Church are ever more numerous and constitute a force toward ecclesial renewal. They resume an ancient form of consecrated life — perhaps the first — which originally gave rise to cenobitic monasticism. Secular Institutes live a form of personal consecrated life within the world, often conducted with the greatest discretion and, in certain circles, even in secret.

    They find in the ideal of solitary life the sense and significance meaning of their life, its value and its strength. They have no form of common life, and very often there is no cohabitation of their members.

    St. Romuald

    This need for silence, solitude, discretion and concealment brings their life very close to that of hermits, who, on the other hand, often have an external testimony to bear through their presence, their habit, their home in the most distant of places.

    Responding to a particular divine appeal, the hermit must specify his solitary way of life. It is advisable for every hermit, from the very beginning, to have a personal statute. This statute determines the obligations, the times of prayer, reflection, study, work; the way of life, the resources, which often derive from manual labour; the way of receiving renumeration for what they do; it establishes what they can sell and what they must obtain to meet their needs so as not to be of burden upon others.

    This personal statute will be submitted to a spiritual counsellor who is familiar with this form of consecrated life, its needs and its perils. It is accurate that it is difficult to find any concrete aspect on this subject, it is nevertheless, important and can facilitate the putting into practice, a balanced and prudent journey of personal life, adapted both to people and circumstances. Firstly, the place chosen by the hermit is extremely important to lead you toward a life in true solitude.

    Certain dioceses have the opportunity to offer the hermits places of silence and solitude of notable value. In this way they were able to receive many hermits, and certain diocesan bishops little by little acquired invaluable experience for a new pursuit of the eremitic life.


    In this way there are hermits on the mountains, by the sea or beside a lake; On an island; but also in the centre of the city, in a multi-storey building, where the tallest one will allow one to live in complete silence and to have a free and extensive view, necessary for repose and tranquillity of the spirit. In each case, it is necessary to determine: the dimensions of the hermitage, the number of rooms required which can and must be arranged by the person who withdraws into solitude: the study, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom.

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    Often a certain space is necessary to organise a workshop, to make provisions for a library, to have a place to store the tools that are used for any specialised but simple work: a form of cultural or artisanal work; of sculpture or painting to give but an example. Manual labour is advisable and one should be anticipated because it allows, if possible, sufficient physical exercise and daily relaxation. The more simple this work is, the better it lends itself toward continuing a meditative, litanic or thematic prayer; a continuous, ceaseless prayer, simplified little by little, without too many words, until it becomes a regular aspiration which fixes the spirit toward an increased contemplative awareness.

    The choice of any means of subsistence are delicate. It is necessary to anticipate with what to live, so as to avoid being a mendicant, going door to door, collecting alms; unless this is done by others, in a discrete, anonymous way, on behalf of the hermits within the region. This could be a project for a parish priest who has more hermits within his parish dependency, in the mountains. If the hermit does not want to be a burden on anyone and lives on his work, he must think carefully about how to make it beneficial; he must provide for the sale of certain objects, especially if they have a practical or even artistic value.

    This sale can be made by a third party who would generously assumes the task. More laborious, yet not impossible, is regular translation work. We must take into account the texts to be translated, their contents. These texts will preferably be of a spiritual nature, and suited to a life of prayer. The choice of the habit is somewhat more personal.

    Discretion levies many demands upon the hermit which need to be respected and requires choices to be made. In some cases he may prefer not to be known by the clergy and the bishop of the area. It is, however, entirely false to believe that such a commitment is in itself more valid, more demanding. It can be taken and, especially at the beginning, be renewed, in silence, during the Eucharist; and it is done with the agreement of the spiritual advisor who helps the hermit in his life of solitary prayer and silence.

    According to an ancient tradition, the hermit can join the Eucharistic celebration without being present. This also allows regular Eucharistic adoration , even if not continuous. The place where the Eucharistic species may be deposited must be worthy; it must facilitate both prayer and worship, unless discretion requires a more concealed way to safeguard them. From this point of view a hermit priest would have more possibilities, although he must envisage how to make the Eucharistic celebration, how to procure the host and wine for the Mass and how — if he so desires — have Mass Intentions useful for bringing forward the needs, however minimal, of a life which is voluntarily simple and poor.

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    If the hermit has an Oratory , he will pay attention to everything that makes it possible for the liturgy to conform to the needs of a regular and worthy cult. This additionally involves the care of the altar linen essential for the Eucharistic celebration. The place of hermitage must therefore be situated in favourable surroundings to best meet these needs without losing the obligatory solitude. Hermits initially retreated into the desert. This total solitude had only advantages; but it also involved real hazards.

    Today one can find other forms of living that allow for a better adaptation to personal prayer , of a more demanding manner of living, especially from a sacramental point of view. The solitude of a female hermit is more dependent on the ordained ministry.

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    It necessitates a relationship with the parish priest or with the parochial vicar of the nearest place of worship. Correspondence, magazines, the sending of books can undermine the subtlety of solitude and silence. Often having to renounce all direct postal shipments to better respond to the demands of a genuine eremitical life. As for personal direction, that which led to the choice of life will not necessarily have to be maintained if not agreed.

    The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude

    But it can become less frequent and even become worthless, especially if the hermit finds within spiritual authors a method of making valid discernment. Preparing his Rule, the hermit needs to take particular care in determining the daily schedule, to ensure a healthy and balanced pace of life, necessary to live an existence of solitude and silence that demands to be truly contemplative. The schedule must first of all be adapted to the person. It should not be chosen as a penance which can present particular difficulties for this fact. The regularity already poses uncommon demands for attention and devotedness, which at conception cannot be fully perceived.

    So one should not establish a difficult schedule with the viewpoint that this is the perfect expression of an increased gift. Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. Shop Indie eBooks. See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist.