Two Episcopal Women Hermits

“A hermit with a Web page may seem an absurdity, but for writer-singer Cynthia Bourgeault it makes infinite sense. For Judith Schenck, a hermit monk in remote Montana, e-mail helps keep life simple and silent. The two Episcopal priests have walked away from the busy-ness of the culture but not the needs of the church. Schenck, from Marion, Mont., and Bourgeault from British Columbia by way of Maine and Colorado, offer themselves, their prayer, their gifts as writers, retreat leaders and spiritual directors to those who seek a deeper connection to God. They both believe such vocations are on the increase.

Bishop Charles “Ci” Jones of the Diocese of Montana finds that welcome news. He just received Schenck’s vows as “a solitary” Oct. 3 at diocesan convention. “This gives us a live and different expression of Christian spirituality than we are used to,” he says. “It also brings to the present a significant part of our heritage. The monastic movement is one of three major, forming concepts within Christianity. … I think it is an important movement within our church to sort of hold up before us.”

What does a solitary do?

Schenck, 56, has served as a priest in the diocese for seven years, first as rector of a parish, more recently as retreat leader. Now she writes a monthly column about the monastic life for the diocesan newspaper in addition to offering spiritual direction.

Like Bourgeault, Schenck prays the “divine office” each day using the Benedictine schedule of lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline and the night office. She allows time for extended prayer and study as well. She is able to devote the time apart because a small widow’s pension provides for her needs.
Bourgeault, 51, a priest for nearly two decades, must earn her living. She divides her life between times when she won’t accept any work at all — “I try to keep Lent and Advent for very deep solitude” — and times when she offers seminars and retreats, writes, records tapes and does “things that allow me to work minimally.” She recently completed a set of tapes teaching how to sing the psalms, which is available from TrueSounds of Boulder, Colo.

Bourgeault believes the hermit’s vocation is given by God to help others “listen more intently during times the church is in danger of drowning in a cacophony of voices.” A former seminary professor who has a doctorate in medieval studies, she compares the present age to that of the 12th century, “the last time there was a real revival of hermits.” In both periods, she says, there was extensive “ferment in the church, a breaking up of long-established, organized power structures … a lot of political ferment.”

During such periods, she says, people start being called to live in solitude, in more intense communion with the eternal truth and the communion of saints. She and Schenck say they know of a dozen or more Episcopalians, men and women, who have turned to this vocation.

Schenck felt her call to contemplative life deepen over the past few years. Last year, after “monastery hopping” along the East Coast, she made a pilgrimage to England, Scotland and Wales in search of Celtic spirituality. On that trip, she encountered spiritual guide and author Esther de Waal, who encouraged her to “Just do it … and the means will follow Schenck accepted that as “the prophetic word from my pilgrimage” and returned to announce her intentions to her parish. The response in the diocese has been positive. “I’ve heard from people that it gives them encouragement for their own spirituality, to be faithful. It gives them strength to know somebody is praying.”

Not an easy decision

“There is risk in this choice: no salary, no church insurance,” Schenck points out. “But then Jesus did not seem to think highly of the safe and cautious life or else there would have been no cross and Resurrection for all of us.”

Bourgeault points out that once Christian hermits could take themselves to the deserts or claim a bit of land and subsist. “It doesn’t happen like that anymore. All land is owned by someone” and unless the would-be hermit intends to become a burden to others, he or she will need money — for fuel, for health insurance, for “a working chainsaw.” How to assure such income can become a struggle for those wanting to remain apart. Some join what Bourgeault calls “the teaching, writing and workshop circuit” and let it subsidize their solitude. Others subsist on periodic manual labor. “A couple of hermits in Maine have banded together to form a skete,” an ancient word for a loose gathering of hermits, says Bourgeault, “and are supporting themselves by weaving and growing vegetables and taking them around to farmer’s markets.”

An Anglican tradition

“Eremitic life” has become for Schenck “a rich, deep and profound heritage and gift.” (The word eremitic comes from a 13th-century word, eremite or hermit.) “I had not realized when I started how ancient or how much a part of Anglican tradition it is … It is even in the old stone crosses,” she says. “The story of St. Anthony and St. Paul being fed by the raven [is] recorded in the ancient monastic tradition of our own tradition on stone. It is very much a part of the Anglican tradition.”
tec hermit vows
Both Bourgeault and Schenck believe that a commissioning from the church, as was traditional, is vital. “Anybody can go off and be a recluse. I am not a recluse,” says Schenck. “I am a vocation within the church. And it is terribly important that it be a vocation as clear and strong and distinct as my priesthood has been.”

“For me, it was incredibly important to do it in the hands of the bishop. … When I held the bishop’s hands and made my vow … I was profoundly aware of both his hands and the hands of God.””

By Nan Cobbey “Episcopal Life “

Judith Schenck has written on the issues facing both modern Hermits and the Church in responding to the eremetical vocation:
“The eremitic vocation is terribly important to the church and also fraught with danger. There are unique requirements for this vocation …. stability of economics and a means of providing that does not require activity and work. It needs to be very ecclesiastically rooted in the hands of the bishop, under their authority and accountability. The solitary vocation belongs to the bishop and serves the whole church through that authority and protection.
It is not for folks who want to do their own thing. In fact no vocation requires greater authority, discipline and obedience. There are several people who call themselves solitaries but have no authority over them, no accountability, no bishop to “hold their vows.”
It is also a vocation that can attract people with weird concepts of church, often medieval and unstable. It is terribly costly and also the heart of prayer for a diocese and the church.”

See and

For Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, see also the site of The Contemplative Society:

“The Contemplative Society is an inclusive non-profit association that encourages a deepening of contemplative prayer based in the Christian Wisdom tradition while also welcoming and being supportive of other meditation traditions. We offer a consistent and balanced path for spiritual growth and transformation rooted in prayer, silence, mindful work, and in the 1500-year-old wisdom of our Benedictine contemplative heritage.

The Society supports the work of Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault in her role of Principal Teacher and Advisor for The Contemplative Society and her vocation as a hermit and writer. We do so by sponsoring retreats, wisdom schools, and workshops led by Cynthia and other distinguished teachers of the Christian contemplative path, and through the sales of instructional and inspiration materials, in both textual and audio format, supportive of the contemplative life.

The Contemplative Society actively nurtures local teachers of the contemplative way and maintains an office to communicate with members and to provide a regular and balanced schedule of retreat, teaching, and workshop opportunities.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: