Lament for the Hermit: 1953

HERMITS IN THE MODERN WORLD

Craving for Solitude By LANCELOT C. SHEPPARD

“The Tablet” Page 13, 24th January 1953
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Although Charles Kingsley wrote a book about hermits, ..and grudgingly conceded that they should not be accounted altogether negligible in the history of civilization, he would have been the first to hold that, whatever their merits in earlier centuries, they would be completely irrelevant in modern times. Our contemporaries, no doubt, would be inclined to agree with him and some justification for their attitude might be found in the Code of Canon Law which makes no mention of hermits and, by its definition of religious life (C. 487), seems positively to exclude them from it (Hermits have their place in the Code for oriental churches : C. 1, 4 and 313,4).

At first sight it seems strange, therefore, that “La Vie Spirituelle” which usually contrives to provide useful and attractively presented teaching about Christian life combined with a modern approach and an awareness of contemporary problems, should devote a special number recently to the subject of the solitary life ; it has done so, no doubt, because as one of its contributors remarks une nostalgie de solitude se declare volontiers de nos fours. It is not to be wondered at : “in a socialized world, or one, at least, of increasing `societization’ . . . in which the dead weight of legalism bears ever more heavily, and even ecclesiastical or religious societies are not exempt from a certain exaggerated juridical bias the eremitical movement . . . appears as the Christian’s testimony to his indefeasible liberty.”

It is too early, of course, to speak of a movement, though in past ages the Church has known more than one such movement to the solitary life ; the Camaldolese hermits and the Carthusians still remain with us as reminders of the great eleventh century religious revival which was very largely eremitical in character. Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Sahara, appears at the beginning of this century as an almost isolated phenomenon, though after the first world war he had his imitators—Fr. Charles Henrion, Eve Lavalliere’s director, Admiral Malchor and others, who followed his example and went to the desert. The “Little Brothers” and “Little Sisters” whose inspiration is drawn from de Foucauld’s life have developed another and perhaps no less important side of the lessons of his life—a contemplative cenobitical life lived in the very midst and as part of the great industrial, agricultural or other agglomerations (communities is hardly the word) of the twentiethcentury world. Readers of “Colliers Magazine” in 1951 were given an account of a modern priest hermit in the Bahamas, and there are others in Europe and elsewhere who in their efforts to live a solitary life of necessity shun the glare of publicity.

In our day the hermit vocation remains, then, not only a very special one but also to a very large extent a private one. It may well be wondered why after so many centuries, when the Church is amply endowed with religious orders and congregations, there is no specifically eremitical order. Obviously, as Jean le Solitaire points out (p. 264), there is a certain opposition between the idea of an order and that particularism founded on their independence which is the characteristic of hermits. Yet there were congregations of hermits in the past, some of them of considerable size, but owing to the ascendancy of the cenobitic ideal and the Latin juridical approach all attempts at the canonical organintion of hermits have, in the event, regularly (and rapidly) succeeded in reducing the eremitical element to some formula of common life. Dom Doyere (“Dict. de Droit Canonique”, fasc XXVI, col. 422) sees this as the result of the intervention of a strong centralising authority, which since the time of the foundation of the great religious orders has increasingly made itself felt in the Church, tending always to encourage the evolution of eremiticism towards semi-cenobiticism.

In the case of the Carmelites a congregation of hermits was turned into a mendicant order though with a strong eremitical bias which was never entirely lost sight of, and the reform under St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross was an endeavour to return to some elements of the earlier form of life. In the seventeenth century the foundation of “desert” houses was a characteristic feature of the Discalced branch of the Order ; there were as many as twenty-two of these “deserts” in Europe in the eighteenth century. The friars of the four Belgian and French provinces combined in 1947 to purchase the former Camaldolese house at Roquebrune-sur-Argens (Var) and it was opened as a Carmelite “desert” in 1948. A similar, though smaller-scale manifestation, has occurred among the Franciscans of the Province of France where an endeavour is made to satisfy those members of the province who show some attraction for a semi-eremitical life, at least temporarily.

Pere Henry remarks (p. 307) that France in bygone days was the Thebaid of the West and the grand siècle, the seventeenth, is also the great century of Western eremiticism. In speaking of the earlier hermitshe raises a problem though does not offer us a solution. “At a time when no law obliged to the reception of the sacraments hermits were men living in isolation, hearing no sermons, never going to communion or confession, not even receiving the last anointing. And yet the Church, from which they seemed excluded externally, to far recognized this exalted appeal of grace in the case of authentic and holy hermits that-it venerated them and declared them blessed.” The history of the solitary life in the Church is not concluded yet. Forms of eremiticism have varied pan i passu with social conditions and the requirements of Canon Law. It remains to be seen how it will develop in this second half of the twentieth century. The fact that “La Vie Spirituelle” deems it important enough to devote a whole number to it is at least significant.

http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/24th-january-1953/13/hermits-in-tile-modern-world

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