Modern-Day Hermits: Answering the Call to Solitude, Prayer
One of the Hermits of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel of Christoval, Texas walks and prays at sunrise. (Photo: Hermits of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel)
When Sister Mary Diana, 83, of Springfield, Oregon, became a consecrated hermit almost 40 years ago, she was among the first in the US. “There were some, but not like what you’ve got now,” said Sister Mary Diana, who lives with Sister Mary Magdalene, 89, who was also among the country’s first hermits.
If the ease with which hermits and hermitages can be found on the Internet is any indication, more and more people are discerning the call to a life of prayer and solitude with God.
To what does Sister Mary Diana attribute the increase in hermitic vocations? “Let’s hope it is out of pure love of God, and wanting to spend time with him every day of your life.”
One reason for an increase in the hermitic life is the fact that when Canon 603 was promulgated in 1984, it allowed bishops to accept within their own dioceses hermits who were not affiliated with religious orders.
Canon law allows men and women like Maria, who is now in her 60s and who spent the better part of her adult life raising children, the opportunity to discern whether they have a call to the hermitic life.
It was disappointing to Maria to learn that most Catholic women’s religious orders would not accept her because of her age. Becoming a hermit, however, will give her the chance to partake in the religious life.
Maria, who lives on the Gulf Coast, thinks the increase in hermits may also be a sign of the times. “The call was answered in the early Church when there was heresy and persecution,” she said. “The world had become so wicked; people could not exist in it anymore.”
She said it may also be indicative of the loss of religious orders. “Maybe the Holy Spirit is renewing the hermitic life to bring back the orders we need.”
Sister Mary Diana agreed that some may be turning to the hermitic life because of the culture’s moral decay. “You cannot do anything politically because the cards are stacked against you,” she said, but added that prayer, on the other hand, is always a good option, because it is always successful.
Is the hermitic life lonely?
Although it would be easy to imagine the hermitic life as a lonely one, Sister Mary Diana cheerfully dispels that idea. “How could you ever get lonely in the Lord’s presence?” she asks.
The sisters, who attend a Byzantine Catholic parish, have no structured schedule at all—which is a common feature of Eastern Catholic hermits—but pray and stay close to the Lord at all times. The Lord, however, brings people to them, according to Sister Mary Diana. She described one day in which she and Sister Mary Magdalene had a strong desire to pray. Soon after they began praying, a man showed up at the door and became part of their prayer. This person was going through a difficult time, so the sisters stopped what they were doing and ministered to him.
Several years earlier, after they built their first hermitage in another area of Oregon, the sisters offered a cabin for retreats to anyone who wanted to spend time alone in nature with God. “There was no advertising, but people found us,” said Sister Mary Diana. “It became a steady stream of them. We didn’t charge anything. Whatever they wanted to give was up to them.”
When it comes to communicating with people, however, the sisters partake of very little in the way of technology. The only reason they have a phone is because Sister Mary Magdalene has serious health issues. “No radio, TV, newspapers,” said Sister Mary Diana. “I hear kids talking about iPads and Google. I don’t know what they are and have no wish to know what they are.”
Brother Martin, of the Hermits of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Christoval, Texas, said that although he does get lonely sometimes, “There are probably people in cities who rub elbows with people every day, and they are intensely lonely.” He added that being in a location where God is placed first and the fact that he has hermit brothers around keep things from being completely solitary.
The brothers have become like a family to him.
The hermitic life and the call to evangelize
A hermit in prayer. (Photo: Hermits of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel)
In living the life of a hermit, Brother Martin said he imitates Christ. “In the hermitic life one retreats from the world, much like Christ did when he went off for 40 days in the desert to pray or when he went to lonely places to pray,” he said.
Some may wonder how the solitary life fits in with the call to evangelize. “Believe it or not,” said Brother Martin, “Protestants seem to identify more with what we do—intercessory prayer. We get a lot of Protestant visitors. They see it in the element of the praying Church. When people come they are evangelized by the place. When people come, they experience the beauty of nature, and Christian art.”
“Protestants seem to understand [the hermitic life] better than most Catholics,” he said. “When [Catholics] see monks, they think we don’t do anything for anybody, but when a person does a good thing, it affects everybody. It’s the Communion of Saints.”
Maria also said that a big part of the hermitic life is praying for the souls of others. “The deeper into Christ’s heart you go, the more elevated you become. It’s like being on a mountaintop, and you can see the whole world writhing in sin, and you feel sorry for the world, and pray for the world.”
As part of their vocation, the brother hermits also make time for guests to the hermitage. “Brothers take turns interacting with visitors,” said Brother Martin. “We show them around. We try to be friends with people.”
In many ways, the hermitage sounds similar to a traditional religious monastery. The difference, however, is that in a hermitage, the hermits live in separate dwellings, and pray some of their prayers privately.
To support themselves, the brother hermits make different kinds of bread, as well as jellies, apple butter, and chocolate fudge. The hermit brothers take the money and divide it by 12—that is their yearly budget. People also donate, and help with the construction of the hermitage.
People buy the hermits’ wares from their website, through the catalog the hermit monks produce, or at the hermitage gift shop. Some of the hermits go to a particular location to sell wares.
The hermits must stick to a strict schedule, and, according to Brother Martin Mary, it is physically demanding. The hermits rise at 3:30 am each day, and when they are not using that time to pray, they are taking care of the large hermitage, gardening, caring for the goats and chickens, tending the grounds, and digging ditches. There is time allotted for a siesta during the day, but he said that many times they do not end up getting around to it. Bedtime for the hermits is 8:30 pm, if the work for the day has been completed.
Brother Martin Mary said what visitors find most surprising about life in the hermitage is the schedule. He said it brings a lot of peace to him and the other brothers. “We’re happy and we are fulfilled [through] surrendering of self-will and obedience,” he explained.
Although Maria is discerning whether she has a call to the hermitic life, she, like Brother Martin, sticks to a strict schedule called an horarium. Some of her daily activities include prayer, daily Mass, lectio divina, meditations, study, physical exercise, household chores, and gardening. “It’s a very intensely busy life,” she said. “But it is all centered in silence and solitude, so you grow to the point where you can hear and discern God’s word.”
When it comes to technology, Brother Martin and the other hermits, like Sisters Mary Diana and Mary Magdalene, have no access to radio, TV, or newspapers. However, since the brothers sell their homemade goods online, they must have access the Internet in order to maintain the website and keep up with sales. During those moments, a hermit brother is not allowed to access the Internet himself, but must do it with his superior present or in union with everyone else.
“That way, we don’t get into any trouble,” said Brother Martin Mary.
The brothers’ superior keeps abreast of current events, and informs the other hermit monks of any life-threatening weather situations or major news events. For example, on 9/11 Brother Martin Mary’s superior showed him and the other hermit monks pictures of what occurred on the computer.
Maria, who has not taken any private or public vows, still has access to a cell phone and the Internet, but may have to give those up at some point if she decides to pursue the hermitic life.
Recognizing the call
Prior to becoming a hermit, Sister Mary Diana was a cloistered Dominican nun for 20 years, which she describes as a beautiful vocation. Like Mother Teresa, though, she says she experienced a “call within a call,” in which she discerned she was being called to life as a hermit.
“A seed was planted when I was in the monastery,” she said.
Sister Mary Diana said that although there was not much resistance from her superior and the other nuns at the Dominican monastery when she revealed she was being called to the hermitic life, there was a little misunderstanding at first. “They felt they werecontemplative,” she said. “But then they understood.”
Brother Martin Mary, who has been a hermit for 12 years, said, “I felt like [the calling] was deep inside me, looking for a life of prayer…believing that it was a way of life. Prayer was something that was helpful to me a lot. I was growing through prayer. I realized that it was the road I need to continue on for the rest of my life.”
Brother Martin Mary was raised Catholic, going to Mass on Sundays. When he went to college, however, he quit going to Mass.
Through the influence and intercession of his mother, who had left the faith and then returned herself, he started practicing his faith again.
When he made the decision to become a hermit, he met some resistance from his family. “I am an only child, and to think about a celibate vocation cancels out grandchildren for my parents—that was already hard enough to take,” said Brother Martin Mary.
For his dad, the disappointment also extended to Brother Martin Mary’s abandoned career choice. “In college, I was on my way to med school,” he said. “I had taken the MCAT, started on applications. It was hard to swallow for my dad. I had gone from being a doctor to a shaky idea [of being a hermit.].”
“What was sure for me was if I went to med school, it would be another eight years, 24 hours a day—I wouldn’t have the time to pray a rosary, go to Mass,” he said. “I was seeing that as a reality. If I go down this route, I could lose my vocation.”
He said it was also hard for his mom to give him up. He said the fact that his mom was such a woman of prayer, she was able to overcome that. His father did as well, eventually.
In 1996, Maria started saying the Divine Office, and the more she said the Office, the more she started to hunger for a religious order. “I approached a number of them, and I was told I was too old,” she said.
Maria also had several impediments, though: a minor child, duties to family, and student loan debt.
“I joined an email list in order to find out about vocations for older women,” she said. She was reading posts about religious orders when she came across a post in which someone identified himself as “semi-hermitical.” She did not know what that meant, so she contacted the author of the post, who turned out to be a superior over hermit monks. His order had no corresponding women’s order. “It was kind of an eye-opener, that such a life existed,” she said. From there, she went on a quest, reading everything she could about hermits.
As soon as her impediments were taken care of, she sought an orthodox spiritual director.
Maria grew up as a fundamentalist Christian in heavily Catholic St. Louis, Missouri, where she regularly saw nuns and priests. She converted to the Catholic Church in 1992 after being vehemently anti-Catholic most of her life. Before her conversion, she said, she faced an interior struggle. “I could see this beauty inside the Church, and would be attracted to it, and think I was going to Hell for it.”
“In the ’70s, I became very ill, and on many occasions, the Blessed Mother actually came to me in various ways, and brought me comfort,” said Maria. “At that point, I dropped the anti-Catholicism…I stopped hating the Catholic Church.”
How does one know he or she is on the right path? Maria said for her, it was after years of study, years of saying the Divine Office, and spiritual direction.
If you think you may have a calling to the hermitic life, Maria said, “Don’t give up. Read everything you can.” She said books such as Poustinia by Catherine Doherty and the early works of Thomas Merton have really helped her in the discernment process.
According to Maria, there is a lot of prejudice against the hermitic life. “Most people don’t realize it exists,” and then there are others who “probably have a negative, knee-jerk response to it.”“My goal is to discern, step by step with my spiritual director, what God wants,” said Maria.