Archive for November, 2013

The Origin of Female Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2013 by citydesert

Although the Hermits of the Early Church always seem to be assumed to have been men – as in references to the “Desert Fathers” – there was a significant population of eremitical women – the “Desert Mothers” – until relatively recently largely ignored in scholarly writing.
Desert Mothers
“The Desert Mothers were female Christian ascetics living in the desert of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming during that time, though sometimes they lived as hermits. Other women from that era who influenced the early ascetic or monastic tradition while living outside the desert are also described as Desert Mothers.
The Desert Fathers are much more well known because most the early Christian texts were written or compiled by men. There are no writings directly attributed to the Desert Mothers—the occasional stories about them come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes forty-seven sayings that are actually attributed to the Desert Mothers. There are several chapters dedicated to the Desert Mothers in the Lausiac History by Palladius, who mentions 2,975 women living in the desert. Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae (“life”). The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of the so-called Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).”

An excellent account of the emergence of female Hermits in the early Church is found at

“The fourth-century persecution of Athanasius and the Christians at Alexandria dramatically underlines the phenomenon of “holy virgins” or “holy women.” Savagely abused during the vicious Arian conflicts, these dedicated women were playing an increasingly significant role in the spiritual life of the church. Christian care for and recognition of women goes back to apostolic times, and reverence for consecrated virginity emerged early. By the fifth century, as barbarian invasions disrupted the west and worldliness corrupted the faith in the east, this idea captivated more and more young women–just as thousands of men were joining monasteries.

Tertullian, in the second century, praised female virginity as an imitation of Christ, notes Jesuit historian James A. Mohler (“The Heresy of Monasticism”, New York, 1971), and virgins took a prominent part in liturgical processions. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage placed them in honor behind only the martyrs. Indeed, notes British historian Joan M. Petersen in “Handmaids of the Lord” (Kalamazoo, 1996), female virginity seemed to acquire such exaggerated esteem as to admit scarcely any justification for marriage. “I praise marriage, I praise wedlock,”wrote Jerome in the fourth century, in a famously controversial letter to his disciple, the virgin Julia Eustochium, “but only because they produce virgins.”
However, this implied that the married state, if not actively sinful, was at best second-rate. Did it not cast doubt, some people wondered, on the essential goodness of God’s creation? The question came to a head in the mid-fourth century, at the Council of Gangra in Paphlagonia in central Turkey, after one bishop actually denounced marriage as sinful. The council passed twenty canons to repudiate him, not only reaffirming the goodness of sex within marriage, but also anathematizing anyone who embraced virginity solely because he or she abhorred marriage. It further denounced any virgin who regarded the married state “arrogantly,” or any woman who left a marriage because she abhorred the married state itself.

Similarly, the so-called Apostolic Canons, a series of eighty-five church laws written in the fourth century, and claiming to go back to the teaching of the apostles, spoke out categorically on the essential goodness of sex within marriage. For example, Canon 51 reads: “If any bishop, presbyter or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good, and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed and cast out of the church. In like manner a layman.” The Apostolic Canons would become the basis of the church’s canon law.

Female asceticism, whether solitary or monastic, virginal or simply celibate, nonetheless quickly spread through the Middle East, Europe, and eventually the world. The most powerful inspiration behind it, scholar Petersen suggests, was surely the same as that of male ascetics. Christ’s call is always for total commitment. With Christianity an accepted state religion, the especially devout may have seen the ordinary, everyday church as requiring of them too little sacrifice. Conscious of the standard set by the martyrs only a generation or so earlier, they yearned for a similarly heroic expression of their devotion to Jesus Christ.

At first, many such women probably lived an ascetic life at home, dressing simply, eating frugally, following a demanding prayer rule, and joining with like-minded friends within church congregations. But some came to believe, writes the Benedictine nun Laura Swan in “The Forgotten Desert Mothers” (New York, 2001), that achievement of inner peace was impossible amidst the pressures and crowding of city life. They felt they must abandon whatever else possessed their mind and heart, and seek God in the immense solitude of the desert.
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Notable among these female solitaries is Mary of Egypt, subject of many popular legends and highly regarded in the Orthodox Church as an exemplar of extreme sin, followed by extreme repentance. Mary was no virgin.
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To the contrary, according to seventh-century sources, Mary of Egypt was a notorious prostitute in fifth-century Alexandria, but while plying her trade among pilgrims to Jerusalem, she was violently stricken with remorse on the threshold of the Holy Sepulchre. She then disappeared into the wilderness beyond the Jordan River to expiate her sins, reportedly seeing no one for the next forty-seven years. At last, a priest-monk named Zosimus, chancing to encounter the practically skeletal woman, gave her communion. She asked him to return a year later; complying, he found and buried her body.
Penitent Mary of Egypt, c.1520-30 (oil on panel)
“Mary of Egypt” (c.1520-30) by Quentin Massys (c.1466-1530)

Among female desert dwellers, there soon appeared the figure of the amma (Aramaic for mother, equivalent to abba, father): a lone-woman ascetic tutoring disciples one by one in the life of solitude with God. As with their male counterparts, however, groups of female hermits took to gathering on occasion, and desert convents began to form.

They proliferated rapidly. Palladius, a much-traveled historian of fourth-century monasticism, encountered one in the Thebaid region on the Upper Nile, where some four hundred virgins followed a rule almost identical to that of the men’s monasteries. Smaller communities were housed in caves, ruins, family tombs, or on islands. Within a half-century, convents were opening all over Roman Europe, although those in the west tended to locate near cities for protection against barbarian attack.
“Thebaid” (c. 1410) by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

They generally observed a communal rule regulating daily prayer (usually at eight stated hours between dawn and bedtime), Divine Liturgy, meals, and so on. Most expected their members to memorize the Psalter and diligently study the Scriptures. Work included weaving, gardening, household chores, and care of the sick and the aged. Personal possessions were limited to a few storage jars and books, plain clothing, and a sleeping mat. Some sisters slept on the ground with only a rough coverlet of goat’s hair. Wine was taken for medicinal purposes, and only in small amounts.

Jerome, who founded numerous monasteries and convents, set out firm rules for girls who aspired to a life of holy virginity, based to some extent upon the behavior expected of any respectable young Roman woman. They should remain with their mothers until they were professed, he said, and not frequent public places (including crowded churches) or walk with mincing steps, or exchange nods and winks with young men. Their dress should be unremarkable, neither too neat nor too careless. But they should also shun popular music and affected speech, should not seek vainglory either in almsgiving or devotional fervor, and should be cheerful when fasting. Nor should they associate with married women, but seek the company of women “whose faces are pale from fasting.”
Bathing was also discouraged, a proscription strange to the modern mind. But bathing was then a largely public activity; nearly all cities had warm “baths”somewhat like swimming pools, where nude men and women of all ages customarily bathed together. Judging by Christian denunciations, however, some of these may have sadly degenerated. They are described as being decorated with licentious paintings and lewd graffiti, and as being a major source of town gossip. Then, too, bathing was seen as a pleasurable activity, and therefore another opportunity for sacrifice. To go bathless became virtuous, a perception that was extended to clothing as well. “Dirty clothes,” observed Jerome, “betoken a clean mind.”
Meanwhile, the exhortations of the Council of Gangra notwithstanding, exaltation of virginity and of celibacy reached fever pitch. Some women became lone ascetics on their own property, often when very young. For example, a Roman girl named Aselia moved at the age of twelve into a cell on her family’s estate, venturing out thereafter only to attend church. A devout Gallic Christian called Monegund lived as a solitary on her family’s estate at Chartres, baking bread and growing vegetables to feed the poor.

Other Christians of wealth and aristocratic lineage founded monasteries. Olympias, a prominent widow at the court of Emperor Theodosius I, sold her entire estate to provide alms for the poor and to endow several monastic communities. A well-to-do couple named Paulinus and Theraisa, after the death of their child at eight days old, renounced further sexual intercourse. They founded a double monastery for men and women at Nola, near Naples.

Sometimes older couples, agreeing to part, would join separate monasteries. Such was the decision of Athanasia of Antioch and her husband, although their story had a different and curious ending. Twelve years later, meeting again on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they were reunited. Thereafter, they shared a cave, but adopted a strict rule of silence.
Monasteries centered on a single family became known as “domestic monasteries,” and those with both men and women as “dual.” Both proved to be somewhat dubious ventures. In the domestic institutions, family demands competed with communal demands. In the dual ones, sexual temptations led to frequent scandal, although examples of mixed communities with carefully separated quarters would continue, sometimes successfully, through medieval times.”

See further:
desert nothers earle
Earle, Mary C. (2007), “The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness”, Church Publishing, Inc.,
Forman, Mary (2005), “Praying with the Desert Mothers”, Liturgical Press,
King, Margot (1989), “The Desert Mothers”, Peregrina Publishing
Johnston, William M. (2000), “Desert Mothers”, “Encyclopedia of Monasticism”, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, pp. 373–374,
Palladius (1918), “The Lausiac History”, Translation by W. K. L. Clarke, Macmillan (online edition by Fordham University)
Swan, Laura (2001), “The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Darly Christian Women”, Paulist Press,


The Starets

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2013 by citydesert

“A starets (Russian: стáрец, fem. стáрица) is an elder of a Russian Orthodox monastery who functions as venerated adviser and teacher. Elders or spiritual fathers are charismatic spiritual leaders whose wisdom stems from God as obtained from ascetic experience. It is believed that through ascetic struggle, prayer and Hesychasm (seclusion or withdrawal), the Holy Spirit bestows special gifts onto the elder including the ability to heal, prophesy, and most importantly, give effective spiritual guidance and direction. Elders are looked upon as being an inspiration to believers and an example of saintly virtue, steadfast faith, and spiritual peace.
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Elders are not appointed by any authority; they are simply recognized by the faithful as being people “of the Spirit”. An elder, when not in prayer or in voluntary seclusion, receives visitors (some who travel very far) and spends time conversing with them, offering a blessing (if the elder is an ordained cleric) and confession, and praying. People often petition the elder for intercessionary prayers, believing that the prayer of an elder is particularly effective.

Personal confessions to elders are encouraged, although not all of them are ordained to the priesthood. Many of them have a reputation among believers of being able to know the secrets of a person’s heart without having ever previously met the visitor, and having the ability to discern God’s plan for a person’s life. This, as all of the elder’s gifts, is believed to come from the Holy Spirit acting through the elder.”

An excellent introduction to the concept of the starets is an essay written by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware):
“One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”.

The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: “I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work … So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does.”
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This is a theme constantly emphasized in the Apophthegmata or Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “The old Men used to say: ‘if you see a young monk climbing up to heaven by his own will, grasp him by the feet and throw him down, for this is to his profit … if a man has faith in another and renders himself up to him in full submission, he has no need to attend to the commandment of God, but he needs only to entrust his entire will into the hands of his father. Then he will be blameless before God, for God requires nothing from beginners so much as self-stripping through obedience.’”

This figure of the Starets, so prominent in the first generations of Egyptian monasticism, has retained its full significance up to the present day in Orthodox Christendom. “There is one thing more important than all possible books and ideas”, states a Russian layman of the 19th Century, the Slavophile Kireyevsky, “and that is the example of an Orthodox Starets, before whom you can lay each of your thoughts and from whom you can hear, not a more or less valuable private opinion, but the judgement of the Holy Fathers. God be praised, such Startsi have not yet disappeared from our Russia.” And a Priest of the Russian emigration in our own century, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov (+ 1934), writes: “Their field of action is unlimited… they are undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic days it is precisely through this means that faith will survive and be strengthened in our country.”
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What entitles a man to act as a starets? How and by whom is he appointed?
To this there is a simple answer. The spiritual father or starets is essentially a ‘charismatic’ and prophetic figure, accredited for his task by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. He is ordained, not by the hand of man, but by the hand of God. He is an expression of the Church as “event” or “happening”, rather than of the Church as institution.

There is, of course, no sharp line of demarcation between the prophetic and the institutional in the life of the Church; each grows out of the other and is intertwined with it. The ministry of the starets, itself charismatic, is related to a clearly-defined function within the institutional framework of the Church, the office of priest-confessor. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the right to hear confessions is not granted automatically at ordination. Before acting as confessor, a priest requires authorization from his bishop; in the Greek Church, only a minority of the clergy are so authorized.
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Although the sacrament of confession is certainly an appropriate occasion for spiritual direction, the ministry of the starets is not identical with that of a confessor. The starets gives advice, not only at confession, but on many other occasions; indeed, while the confessor must always be a priest, the starets may be a simple monk, not in holy orders, or a nun, a layman or laywoman. The ministry of the starets is deeper, because only a very few confessor priests would claim to speak with the former’s insight and authority.
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But if the starets is not ordained or appointed by an act of the official hierarchy, how does he come to embark on his ministry? Sometimes an existing starets will designate his own successor. In this way, at certain monastic centers such as Optina in 19th-century Russia, there was established an “apostolic succession” of spiritual masters. In other cases, the starets simply emerges spontaneously, without any act of external authorization. As Elchaninov said, they are “recognized as such by the people”. Within the continuing life of the Christian community, it becomes plain to the believing people of God (the true guardian of Holy Tradition) that this or that person has the gift of spiritual fatherhood. Then, in a free and informal fashion, others begin to come to him or her for advice and direction.”

The full essay is available at
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The writings of an eminent Athonite elder are found in “Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938” [St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974]. See also “The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938” by Sophrony Sakharov [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997].
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“Saint Silouan the Athonite (also sometimes referred to as Saint Silvanus the Athonite or Staretz Silouan; 1866–1938), was an Eastern Orthodox monk of Russian origin. He was born Simeon Ivanovich Antonov, of Russian Orthodox parents who came from the village of Sovsk in Imperial Russia’s Tambov Governorate. At the age of twenty-seven, after a period of military service, he left his native Russia and came to the monastic state of Mt. Athos (an autonomous peninsula in Greece) where he became a monk at the Monastery of St Panteleimon, known as “Rossikon”, an Orthodox monastery that houses Russian monks yet is, as all the Athonite monasteries, under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and was given the name Silouan (the Russian version of the Biblical name Silvanus.)
An ardent ascetic, he received the grace of unceasing prayer and saw Christ in a vision. After long years of spiritual trial, he acquired great humility and inner stillness. He prayed and wept for the whole world as for himself, and he put the highest value on love for enemies. He became widely known as an elder. The writer and mystic Thomas Merton has described Silouan as “the most authentic monk of the twentieth century.” St Silouan reposed on September 24, 1938. His memory is celebrated on September 24.
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Though barely literate, he was sought out by pilgrims for his wise counsel. His writings were edited by his disciple and pupil, Archimandrite Sophrony. Father Sophrony has written the life of the saint along with a record of St. Silouan’s teachings in the book Saint Silouan the Athonite. Starets Silouan was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1987.”
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Athonite Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 by citydesert

Athos Agion Oros – – draws attention to “Op de Heilige Berg Athos” (1965) by Dr. W.P. Theunissen which includes numerous photographs by different photographers of life on Mount Athos.
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He visited the Holy Mountain in 1934 for the first time and his first book about Athos was published in 1944.
Athos Agion Oros provides copies of some of the fascinating photographs of Athonite hermits:
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For more photographs of the hermits of Karoulia see: and

Into Great Silence

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2013 by citydesert

“Into the Silence” is an extraordinary film, not only for its direction and production, but for its wonderful portrayal of the reality of the monastic and eremitical life. The film portrays what is essentially the superficially mundane routine of the life – praying, reading, eating, cutting firewood – but (without attempts at explanation or interpretation – or any words at all!) reveals the spiritual purpose and intensity beneath. Unlike some documentaries on the monastic life which have a “marketing feel” to them, this documentary makes no attempt to promote or justify or analyse: it simply shows.
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“”Into Great Silence “(German: Die Große Stille) is a documentary film directed by Philip Gröning that was first released in 2005. It is an intimate portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, high in the French Alps (Chartreuse Mountains). The idea for the film was proposed to the monks in 1984, but the Carthusians said they wanted time to think about it. The Carthusians finally contacted Gröning 16 years later to say they were now willing to permit Gröning to shoot the movie, if he was still interested. Gröning then came alone to live at the monastery, where no visitors were ordinarily allowed, for four and a half months starting in mid-March 2002. He filmed and recorded the sound on his own, using no artificial light. Additional shooting of the documentary took place in December and January; Gröning spent a total of six months filming in the monastery and took about two and a half years to edit the film before its release. The film has neither commentary nor sound effects added, consisting only of images and sounds of the rhythm of monastic life.”
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“Like Tolkien’s Ents, there’s nothing “hasty” or haphazard about the Carthusians. They live deliberately, in every sense of the word, and the sixteen years Gröning spent waiting for approval to shoot in the monastery were in a way the beginning of his acclimatization to the Carthusian sensibility, and the beginning of the film’s gestation period.
Gröning was admitted to the Grand Charteuse in mid-March of 2002, and shot for about four and a half months, returning for additional shooting in December and January — about six months in all. Working without a crew, he shot in high-definition digital video, operating the camera and recording the sound alone, relying only on available light. While at the monastery, the director followed their discipline of silence as well as their grueling routine of prayer and work, which never allows more than three hours of sleep at a time. (“I have to admit that I omitted the night prayers a couple of times,” Gröning has confessed.)
Shooting approximately three hours a day, Gröning amassed over 120 hours of digital video. As a contrasting effect, he also shot some grainy Super 8 film. He then spent over two years editing and re-editing, seeking a delicate balance that would sustain the elusive experience he was after.
“Very, very difficult” is how Gröning described the editing process. “Editing took about two and a half years… the film kept falling apart. I had a few structural elements that I knew I wanted… but all the rest — that was sort of the monastic process for me: the process of having to accept that I don’t know very much about this film, and the film would slowly teach me where it actually wants to go. The virtue of humility was brought to me through the fact that in the editing I was watching it fall apart again and again and again, until suddenly it was there.”
“It was there” is as good a way of putting it as any. Like a mountain, Into Great Silence towers above the surrounding landscape, its austerity and splendor a silent but inexorable call to the adventurous to brave its heights. Or rather, not a mountain, but a mountain monastery. Gröning has said that his goal was a film that, “more than depicting a monastery, becomes a monastery itself.”
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This style of filmmaking makes demanding viewing, and takes some adjusting to. Yet as the film progresses, a mysterious thing happens. Like the rule of the monastery, which the monks experience as a path of joy and liberation and inner peace, the film’s very austerity becomes the bearer of something more. Almost imperceptibly, rigor and discipline are swallowed up in beauty, harmony and transcendence.
“This is what a monastery is,” Gröning said. “It’s getting rid of all the superfluous stuff, and then things become much more transparent — time becomes transparent, objects too. There’s this transparency, this inner freedom that comes, which is felt as joy, of course.”
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Among other expressions of this dichotomy of rigor and liberation in the film are a pair of scriptural texts to which the film returns again and again. One is a gospel text emphasizing discipline and self-denial: is “He who does not give up everything cannot be My disciple.” The other is a prophetic utterance evoking ecstatic self-surrender: “You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced.”
These two poles, Gröning observed, are “the field of tension in which monks live. On the one hand, you do have to and be very hard on yourself, and strict, and get rid of a lot of things. On the other hand, if you only follow this path of discipline, then you’re just a masochistic person and you’re not going to be a good monk either. So you have to have this other level of letting yourself go, letting yourself be seduced, and the balance between the two of them is sort of the eternal struggle… And this is very similar for us. We also have to find moments of discipline and structuring ourselves, and we also must find ways of abandoning ourselves to what life is. And the finding of that balance is one of the major human processes. So this is why I chose those two captions.””
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“For those who like their entertainment snappy, expect some discomfort. What is unusual in this film about silence and contemplation is that the passage of time is undivided by filters or markers. We sit inside it, as in physical space, more than we are swept along by it. What Gröning wants to explore is something that has been marginalised by the market pressures of the industry: the capacity for cinema, at some primal level, to entrance, to open us to an ecstatic engagement with the film-as-lyric. His film reactivates some of the old magic of this newest of art forms: that moment when utter peace and letting go descend upon us, collectively, in the dark of the multiplex….
The whole of Into Great Silence works in this way. The smallest elements become energised, and the narrative of everyday things begins to take on a kind of supercharged intensity. Thus, when some of the monks, on their customary Sunday walk outside the monastery grounds, slide down a steep snowdrift using their shoes as rudimentary skis and tumble in a heap of delighted giggling at the bottom of the run, it seems a hilariously transgressive moment. As for the other 159 minutes: what becomes intriguing about these men is their deep level of acceptance, if for nothing else than the unchanging rhythms of the days. They eat, they pray, they chant, as if to do otherwise, or to do anything more, would be to crowd their lives with inessentials….
There is also in Into Great Silence a sense of intensity and expansiveness co-existing, of an intimate immensity and a deeply felt obsession contained within a great vastness. Kurosawa’s late-career film Dersu Uzala captured this sense of vastness out in the Siberian wastes: the expanse in that film was spatial, and raised the hairs on the neck. For the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, the expanse that they live with and within is temporal, but no less intimidating for that. They are, like Dersu, in some sense travellers in the Outlands.”
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Extraordinarily for such an unusual film on such an unusual topic, “Into the Silence” has won a considerable number of awards.

The official website for the documentary is at
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An interview with Philip Groning on ABC TV can be found at

For more on the Carthusians, see and (which is the website of St Hugh’s Charterhouse in England).
For more on Carthusian spirituality, see and

Annual Day of Commemoration for Contemplative and Cloistered Religious

Posted in Uncategorized on November 21, 2013 by citydesert

“The habitation of a hermit” (1901) by Apollinary Vasnetsov (1856–1933)

“Every 21 November, the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the annual day that the Catholic Church commemorates the hidden life of cloistered and contemplative religious throughout the world.

This liturgical feast of Our Lady is very dear to Christians in the East who have celebrated it since the sixth century.

Tradition tells us that as a young girl Mary presented herself completely to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. She is seen as a true living temple in which God the Father placed his Son, our Saviour.
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This feast is a fitting day on which to remember all those who have been consecrated to God and who spend their life in the silence and prayer of contemplative monasteries.

They may well be separated from the busy world, with all its interests and pleasures, but they remain very near to us with their prayers. They pray for us but we are normally unaware of the graces we receive through their lives of quiet dedication to the Lord….

Although they are hidden from society, people of faith have trust in the prayers of nuns and monks and friars. It is sufficient to visit any contemplative monastery to become aware of the constant stream of people who come with prayer intentions, trusting in the intercession of those who have completely dedicated their lives to God in continuous prayer and penance.

The busy world often passes by our contemplative monasteries, heedlessly unaware of their existence or of the spiritual influence they exert on society…

Although not a very common vocation in life, the Lord does call some, and will continue to do so, to this type of dedicated life on behalf of the Church….

The Church is well aware of the importance of the contemplative life. The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) acknowledged the important role of contemplative communities in the Church. It said they were “a fount of heavenly blessings” and that they “lend lustre to God’s people with abundant fruits of holiness, sway them by their example and enlarge the Church by their hidden apostolic fruitfulness” (Perfectae Caritatis, 7).

All popes in recent times have expressed their appreciation for this way of life. In the Jubilee Year 2000, Blessed John Paul II asked Benediction Congregations to “be eloquent signs of the validity of monastic life for our contemporaries. ..

In their own silent but effective way they contribute enormously to the work of re-evangelisation of our secularised world.

+Philip Boyce
Bishop Philip Boyce OCD
“Contemplation” (1893?) by Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924)

O Lord Whose Wisdom is beyond all human comprehension,
And whose Glory transcends all human understanding:
Thou callest some of Thy sons and daughters into hidden lives and concealed places,
That they may, unseen and unknown, strive to bear witness to that Wisdom and that Glory
In lives of secret prayer and contemplation,
[Especially do we pray for……..known to us];
Grant unto them that they may be blessed by Thy Presence in all that they do,
And that the prayers of their hearts
And the sacrifices of their lives may be acceptable unto Thee,
Who livest and reignest, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
God throughout all ages of ages. Amen.

In Praise of Hiddenness

Posted in Uncategorized on November 17, 2013 by citydesert

“In Praise of Hiddenness. The Spirituality of the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona”, Father Louis-Albert Lassus (Editor), Holy Family Hermitage (June 1, 2006)
“Living at the heart of the mystery of the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth, a Camaldolese hermit here sings the praises of the silent life in the desert of those men and women whom Christ calls. These few and very simple conferences were given to some brother hermits. They endeavor to express the meaning of their “disappearance”, which in our difficult and grandiose period of history has about it a savor of modernity. A subsequent reflection of the author on St. Romuald’s monastic experience has been translated from the Italian and added to this edition as an appendix. “A son of St. Romuald, you have sensed the call to disappear, as do all lovers. Hermits themselves are, in fact, lovers who have chosen the shade, a life hidden with Jesus in God . . . . It ought to be enough for us to be known by God.” Father Louis-Albert Lassus, O.P. (1916 – 2002), who prepared this anonymous work for publication in its original French edition and wrote the introduction, was a longtime friend of the Camaldolese Hermits. His writings include “Livre de vie des ermites et des reclus du bienheureux Paul Giustiniani, Pierre Damien, l’homme des deserts de Dieu, and “Nazarena, une recluse au Coeur de Rome”. An Italian translation of the present work was published in 2003.”

“This is a book of conferences by an anonymous Camaldolese Benedictine monk of the strict Monte Corona branch of the order. It is not a general introduction to the subject of the hermit life, it will have the most value for people specifically interested in Camaldolese hermit spirituality. It presents a picture, relatively more practical than sublime, of the monks’ struggle to define and live their vocation in the present, post-Vatican II world. These conferences touch on many different practical and spiritual concerns. What is the Christian meaning of the totally hidden life? Am I a lesser monk if I am not moved to copious tears over my sins? Is work an obstacle to the contemplative life? What is the relationship of the hermit to the Church? These are some of the matters discussed. There is also a 30 page essay “The Monastic Experience of St. Romuald (+ 1027); A New Interpretation of the Sources.””
“In Praise of Hiddenness is a series of eight conferences given by a contemporary prior of Monte Corona, examining true success, solitude, hesychasm, penthos, work, obedience, communio, and joy. The language is simple, but the reflections run deep. The author conforms his thinking to Holy Scripture, the Desert Fathers, and the Camaldolese tradition, but he is quite alert to the ills of postmodern society and to the medicine eremitism can supply. The book closes with an illuminating commentary on the sources for St. Romuald’s life. I highly recommend this book for those who wish to know about the hermit life or who wish to deepen their own spiritual knowledge.”
Further reading on Camaldolese Spirituality might include:

“Camaldolese Spirituality: Essential Sources” translations, notes, and introduction by Peter-Damian Belisle, Ercam Editions, 2007

“The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude” by Cornelius Wencel, Er.Cam.
Ercam Editions, 2007

The Privilege of Love: Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality, Edited by Peter-Damian Belisle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002).

Camaldoli: A Journey into its History and Spirituality by Lino Vigilucci (California: Source Books, 1995).

The Mystery of Romuald and the Five Brothers: Stories from the Benedictines and Camaldolese by Fr. Thomas Matus (California: Source Books, 1994). The book includes Fr. Matus’ translation of two early Camaldolese classic texts: The Life of Blessed Romuald by St. Peter Damian and The Life of the Five Brothers by St. Bruno of Querfurt, one of the first disciples of St. Romuald, as well as Fr. Matus’ own Camaldolese experience and reflection.

Love on the Mountain: The Chronicle Journal of a Camaldolese Monk by Fr. Robert Hale (California: Source Books, 1999). The book offers a glimpse into the day-to-day life of the Hermitage monks, and reflections on Camaldolese spirituality.

See also “The Spiritual Theology Of The Camaldolese Hermits Of Monte Corona”

For a brief introduction to the Camaldolese see:
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For an interesting modern Camaldolese community in the USA, see:

Nazarena of Jesus, Modern Anchoress

Posted in Uncategorized on November 17, 2013 by citydesert

“Nazarena of Jesus, O.S.B. Cam. (October 15, 1907 – February 7, 1990), was an American Roman Catholic Camaldolese nun, who spent most of her adult life in a monastery as an anchoress, or recluse.

She was born Julia Crotta on October 15, 1907, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, the United States, to Italian immigrant parents. She studied at the Hartford Conservatory, then piano, violin (with Hugo Kortschak) and composition (with David Stanley Smith and Richard Donovan) at the Yale School of Music. She matriculated from Albertus Magnus College.
To discern a possible monastic vocation, Crotta joined the Carmel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, in Newport, Rhode Island, living there for about three months before she left, seeking a more solitary way of life. Traveling to Rome, she joined the Camaldolese nuns of the Monastery of Sant’Antonio Abate, where she remained for only a short time. Still in Rome, she then entered the Carmel of the Reparation in the fall of 1938, where she pronounced simple vows as a Discalced Carmelite nun. In 1944, just before her solemn vows, however, she left Carmel.

Following a private audience with Venerable Pope Pius XII, Crotta again entered the Camaldolese monastery in Rome on November 21, 1945, being allowed to live immediately as a recluse. This is a practice long unique to that Order, but normally only after a number of years of living in the community. She then took the name, Nazarena of Jesus.
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Nazarena was to remain in a secluded cell in that monastery, leading a strict ascetic regime, for the rest of her life, hearing Mass through a grille, and receiving her food and messages from the Mother Superior and the other nuns through a slot in the door to her cell. She spoke to no one directly, except once a year, when she spoke to the priest who served as her spiritual director. Those meetings could last an entire day, during which she would talk for hours.

As a Camaldolese nun, Nazarena pronounced her simple vows on December 15, 1947, and professed her solemn vows on May 31, 1953. Venerable Pope Paul VI visited the monastery on Ash Wednesday of 1966 (February 23 that year), and blessed Nazarena through her grille, while she wore a black veil covering her face.
She died there February 7, 1990, aged 82.”
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“In a coarse sackcloth robe worn over a hairshirt, she sits alone in her stone-floored cell. Her food is bread, water, an occasional cooked vegetable. Through a small grilled window she may look into a chapel, and down a narrow passageway there is another barred window where she takes her daily communion. In the cell is a straight chair, a table, a board that serves as her bed and a small washroom with a cold shower. Not since she closed the door behind her 16 years ago has she ever left this confined area.

This austere regime belongs to a 54-year-old American woman, one of the nuns in the Camaldolese Convent in the fashionable Aventine Hill section of Rome. Her name is Julia Crotta; to her sister nuns, who may now and then hear her cough or murmur but never see her, she is known as Sister Nazarena.

All the Camaldolese sisters rise at 4 for prayer, observe silence for most of the day, abstain entirely from meat during Lent and Advent. But Sister Nazarena practices a degree of asceticism that is extraordinary even for her order. She is one of the few nuns in the world with ecclesiastical permission to attempt the hermitlike life known as reclusion. Her only contacts with the outside world are with the priest who daily gives her communion and with the convent abbess who visits her from time to time. This week Sister Nazarena and her sister nuns are busy cutting palm leaves for the Vatican’s Palm Sunday. It is a time of “extra strict silence.”
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Not even her family quite understands why Julia Crotta undertook so arduous a vocation. She was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Julia, her family remembers, was a cheerful, fun-loving girl with an aptitude for music. She studied violin and theory at the Yale School of Music, but left to take a four-year liberal arts course at New Haven’s Albertus Magnus College for women. “She loved life, dancing, good movies and good clothes,” says a brother-in-law.

After college, Julia taught violin and piano, worked in Manhattan. She was briefly engaged to marry, but broke it off and joined a convent of Carmelite nuns in Newport, R.I. The Carmelites were not strict enough for her; she left the convent and went to Rome, where a priest advised her to try the Camaldolese. In 1945 her abbess gave Sister Nazarena permission to attempt reclusion.

Rome’s Camaldolese sisters make ends meet by cooking and scrubbing for a local pensioner, and laundering altar linens for a nearby Benedictine seminary. Sister Nazarena shares in the convent work by sewing and cutting the palms; her materials are delivered to her cell by a nun who taps at her door, whispers “Deo gratias,” waits long enough for Sister Nazarena to hide in a recess of her cell, then sets the cloth or fronds inside the door.

At night, long after the other nuns have retired, she stays awake to pray; in her cell she has a “discipline” with the tiny whip that certain religious use to scourge themselves in mortification. In her solitary life, Sister Nazarena prays, explains one nun, “for you, for me, for all of us.” Solitude with her God seems to agree with her. “She is the most serene person I have ever known,” says her abbess Mother Hildegarde. “She is a saint.””
“Time”, April 13, 1962 Read more: Religion: A Nun’s Story – TIME,9171,827274,00.html#ixzz2krTiPsZN,9171,827274,00.html

“Nazarena, an American Anchoress” By Thomas Matus, Paulist Press (July 1, 1998)
“In this fascinating book, Thomas Matus tells the true story of one woman’s struggle to live her extraordinary vocation to a life of total silence, solitude and hiddenness. A gifted musician and ordinary Sunday Catholic, Nazarena, nee Julia Crotta, had a vision of Jesus calling her to the desert while in college in Connecticut. After much searching and numerous attempts to have her unique vocation recognized by the church, she eventually found her “desert” in a small room at the monastery of the Camaldolese Benedictine nuns in Rome. She lived there as an anchoress for forty-five years until her death in 1990.
Radical yet traditional, exceptional yet simple, Sister Nazarena had a long and spiritually fruitful ascetic life. Nazarena, an American Anchoress uses excerpts from her own letters of spiritual counseling and material taken from interviews with those who knew her to tell the remarkable story of her life of silence and prayer.”

See also which includes photographs.