Sons of the Wilderness

“At about 10 miles by road from the city, on the foothills of the Sierra Morena mountain range, in the area known as the Wilderness of Nuestra Señora de Belén, stands the group of buildings known as Las Ermitas (the Hermitages). They were founded in the 18th century by Brother Francisco de Jesús, although hermits had occupied this spot since the Middle Ages. The first building was completed in the year 1703, and all together thirteen hermit’s cells were built, which since 1957 have been maintained by the Discalced (Shoeless) Carmelites. From the grounds, there are stunning views over the city of Cordoba and the Guadalquivir valley, with the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, erected in 1929 by Lorenzo Coullaut Valera, dominating the skyline.”
The Digital History Project publishes a fascinating account of the Hermits of Cordoba: “Sons Of the Wilderness: Hermit Monks of Sierra Morena, Cordoba, Spain” by Herbert Vivian, originally published in the “Wide World Magazine” December 1899, complete with some wonderful photographs:

“For everything really medieval and least impaired by the lapse of centuries we must go to Spain, where nothing changes except Govern¬ments and a few other details which really do not matter. So to Spain I went in search of hermits, and was fortunate enough to find a goodly number of them scattered about upon the Sierra Morena, a league or so to the north of Cordoba, the ancient and glorious capital of the Moorish Empire in Spain. If they do not quite come up to the expectations conjured up by the hermits of legend and art, my hermits are, at any rate, deeply interesting in themselves, and afford us a vivid picture of the life and ideas of the average hermit three or four hundred years ago.
cordoba 7
Hermits, known as “Sons of the Wilderness,” have occupied this mountain since beyond the memory of history. The first definite record of them is in the year 1309, when a band of Castillian soldiers deserted the army of Ferdi¬nand IV and took to the hermit’s life¬ “resolved,” as an old chronicler puts it, “to wage war henceforward on behalf of the King¬dom of Heaven.” The original hermits are thought to have come from Egypt, or at any rate to have adapted their mode of life from that of famous Egyptian hermits.

Though the hermits we are about to consider are so near to Cordoba, they can boast of a full measure of seclusion. To begin with, we may not visit them without a special permit from the Bishop, and this is not very readily granted. I have to present myself at his palace punctually at a certain hour and explain, in broken Spanish, to his chaplains the reason of my request – what my motive is, what the result of my visit will be, etc. They are very courteous, but inclined to be a little suspicious. Am I “a North American”? Heaven forbid! (I have a purpose to serve.) They smile graciously. Am I a Catholic? Of course – though I do not enter into vexed questions of Roman and Anglican, which they would not understand. At last they are satisfied, and I am furnished with a document addressed to “the Chief Brother of the Hermits,” and setting forth that “we grant our license to Mr. Herbert Vivian and any other persons who may accompany him to visit the desert and chapel of Our Lady of Belen, provided the established rules are ob¬served. But no permission is given to pass the night in the desert; and this license is only available for three days from the date of issue. THE BISHOP OF CORDOBA.”

Ladies used not to be allowed in “the desert,” and even nowadays they are only accorded permission if accompanied by male relatives. So the solitary modern globe-trotting girl is hereby warned off….

I grow excited at the prospect of an inter¬view with a latter day Simon Stylites, and my spirits rise as the air grows rarer and more exhilarating, and at last the details of the “head brother’s” hermitage are distinctly visible.
Cordoba 6
Adjoining it are the chapel and refectory. The dwellings of the other hermits are scattered about the hillside at sufficient distances apart to secure the privacy which is the anchorite’s ideal. When at last I arrive I find a simplicity and modesty which exceed all my anticipa¬tions. Head hermitage, chapel, and refectory all together only make up the humblest little whitewashed cottage, with a red-tiled roof and a small belfry surmounted by a cross. In the rude yard outside over a score of beggars (never to be avoided in Spain) are crouching in groups over the coarse but ample fare which the hermits never refuse to any who care to come for it is one of the sights of the place, and ought not to be missed. Some of the beggars are in a dreadful condition of raggedness and misery. One of those in the beautiful photograph here reproduced has little more than a rug for all clothing, and it does not suffice to shield his shoulders from the sharp air. The countenances of these beggars wear that expression of mingled wistfulness, gratitude, and dignity which is the characteristic of mendicants all over Spain. The soup is brought out in a large earthenware tureen of medieval shape, glistening with cleanliness, and tilted out into a bowl, from which it is eaten with three large wooden spoons, which are handed round in turn. A couple of young hermits are surveying the scene with benevolent smiles, which have endeared them throughout the whole countryside.

One of these young hermits comes forward to welcome me, and explains that the rest of the brethren are still in the refectory. In a few minutes, however, they emerge in procession, most of them with their hands raised upon their breasts in an attitude of devotion, as if they were still reciting their grace after meat. Among the group is a young man from Cordoba, who has been privileged to share their frugal fare. In spite of their austerities, the hermits all look the picture of cheerfulness. The head brother has a particularly kind expression, and, after examining the Bishop’s permit, which I hand to him, he makes me an amiable speech every word of which he evidently means. He then bids the young hermit accompany and show me everything.
Cordoba 5
First, I am taken the round of various hermitages and told something of life there. At present there are seventeen hermits and one novice in “the desert.” They maintain rigorous silence, and are completely isolated from each other during the greater part of the day, only meeting for the daily mass and the pious reading which follows it, and for their midday meal in the refectory. Breakfast and supper are prepared and eaten by the hermits each alone in his little cell, where he has a simple kind of kitchen. Most of the day and night is spent in meditation and prayer, very little time being accorded for sleep; five hours out of the twenty-four, however, must be devoted to manual labor, generally digging and various forms of gardening. One advantage the hermits have over monks is that they are very little bound by rules, but are free to choose their own times for most of their occupations, the regular hours of prayer alone excepted. The habit is for the head brother, as he goes through his own devotions in the chief hermitage, to sound the bell in his little belfry. Every cell is provided with a belfry and bell of its own, which, each hermit must sound when he hears that of the head brother. In this way they make sure of observing the hours of prayer simultaneously. To omit to sound his bell is held to be a grave remission of duty, and entails a severe penance…
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…they certainly seem to deserve the title of “Sons of the Wilderness,” by which they have been known to the outer world for so many centuries. They appear to revel in the barest and loneliest corners of their domain, and to find supreme happi¬ness in cherishing the most gloomy and morbid thoughts. Notice the beatific expression of the fine old fellow in the next photograph as he digs his own grave. Like an animal about to die, he has chosen for his last resting-place a spot as far away as possible from the habitations of the living. With a huge pick he has cleared away the brambles and made some progress with his digging. He has paused in his work to say a prayer, and is reflecting upon that blissful state where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. He came to the hermitage in the hope of forgetting all the sadness of his former life, but he has long ago realized that there can be no complete forgetfulness on this side of the grave, and for death accordingly he yearns.”
herbert vivian
Herbert Vivian (1865-1940) was a journalist, author and Jacobite enthusiast.

The ever wonderful Hermitary – – provides “An Hour With the Hermits,” by Marybella Macaulay: “The Irish Quarterly”, v. 21, August 1893, p. 443-446. “This brief 19th-century Irish travel essay about Cordoba, Spain, captures the remoteness of an unnamed monastery. Wistfully infused in the essay is an exoticism about ruins, mountains, and silence that culminates with arrival at a monastery of hermits”:
cordoba 2
“We pity these men who lead such austere lives with no companionship, none of the comforts, and scarcely the necessaries of life; at the same time we cannot but admire their greatness of soul in being able so to break all human ties and devote their lives to praising God and praying for others and preparing themselves for the other world, which will last longer than this. They do well to go so high up the mountains, for it lifts their thoughts beyond the clouds so near them.

But, all the same, a grateful feeling creeps over one, and we thank God for having asked us to serve Him in a different way, for having given us kind and good friends to help us by word or example up the rooky and often-times dangerous path through life, and to warn us of the perils we are likely to meet on the way, and the best means to avoid them.”

See also
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A further 19th century account of the Hermit written by Don Leucadio Doblado [i.e. Joseph Blanco White.] is found in his “Letters From Spain” (1803) in “Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine and Humorist”, Volume 4, which can be found at:

The Letters were eventually published as a book, “Letters from Spain” (1825), the full text of which can be found at

An account of the dissolution of the Hermits is found in the 4th May 1956 issue of the “Catholic Herald”: “The small hut dwindling congregation of hermits in the diocese of Cordoba, Spain, has been dissolved by the Holy See, and its members are joining the Carmelite Order as lay brothers.”


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