How did Hermits Keep the Sunday Obligation?
“If you are anything like me, then you must have wondered occasionally, upon reading the tales of St. Benedict spending years alone in an inaccessible cave on Subiaco or St. Daniel Stylites sitting for thirty years atop a pillar, how on earth these hermit-saints fulfilled the Sunday obligation which stipulates participation in Mass every Sunday? When did these holy hermit saints ever receive Holy Communion?
At first glance, it might seem plausible to suggest that the canonical obligation to attend Mass every Sunday was not yet defined, and that in the age of the Desert Fathers and the early Benedictines, Christians basically went to Mass on Sundays as a matter of custom, but not as a strict obligation that needed to be fulfilled on pain of sin. This explanation would allow the hermits leeway to spend extended periods of time in solitude in the wilderness without attending Mass and yet not be guilty of sin.
The only problem with this explanation is that it is not historically accurate. Although canon law as such did not crystallize into a uniform legal code until the 12th century, “canons” certainly existed in the Early Church which prescribed attendance at Sunday Mass and imposed ecclesiastical censures for those who did not. For example, the Council of Elvira (300) decreed: “If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected” (Canon 21). In the Apostolic Constitutions, which belong to the end of the fourth century, both the hearing of the Mass and the rest from work are prescribed, and this is attributed to the Apostles. Thus, by the fourth century the general necessity of attending Mass on Sundays was well-known; note that these decrees are contemporary with the earliest Desert Fathers and predate St. Benedict at least a century and a half. Thus, it cannot really be said that a Sunday obligation was unknown in these early centuries. Besides, there was always Hebrews 10:25m which encouraged Christians to meet together regularly for worship, “Not forsaking our assembly, as some are accustomed…”
A further argument against this position is that it does not help us solve the dilemma for hermits who came much later in history, men like St. Cuthbert of Linidsfarne (d. 687) who lived in solitude for eight years on a small island in the North Sea; or Robert of Knaresborough (1160-1218), a hermit who spent his life in a cave in the vicinity of York and certainly lived after the period when the canonical Sunday obligation was clearly defined and universally known.
If the obligation was already known in the days of the Desert Fathers and earliest western hermits, then perhaps we may postulate that they in fact did receive communion regularly? For example, when we read that St. Daniel Stylites lived on top of a pillar for thirty years and never came down even once, we assume of course that though he was not coming down, someone else was coming up; otherwise, how did he obtain food? And if we assume that some disciple was regularly bringing food to fulfill the demands of bodily health, may we not also assume that some disciple likewise regularly brought him Holy Communion to fulfill the demands of spiritual health? When we read of St. Anthony and his community of monks, we must presume there was some priest among them who said Mass and distributed communion to the community. This presumption is based upon the acknowledgement that these individuals were eminently holy and would not out themselves in living arrangements that would preclude them from attending Mass or receiving Holy Communion. Thus, whenever we read about a holy hermit, we must always assume that some provision was made to fulfill this obligation.
This is the view I myself took of this matter for many years, until I realized three very strong weaknesses in the argument:
First, it depends upon a very powerful assumption – that whenever we read of a holy hermit or saintly recluse, we must always assume that they were receiving communion weekly even when their biographies make no mention of it. Surely, had they been receiving communion weekly, their devout hagiographers would have taken care to point this out? But regardless, it is poor history to simply assume that something was regularly going on when there is no real evidence to support such an assumption.
Second, many of the saints’ lives positively rule out such explanations. St. Athanasius’ biography if St. Anthony is very specific in stating that, after the saint moved into a fortress in the Egyptian desert, he went without any human contact for almost twenty years. How silly would it be for St. Athanasius to say this if what he really meant was, “Except that he left to go to Mass at the local church every week.” No; Athanasius is clear that Anthony had not human contact for many years. The life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne also states plainly that Cuthbert lived in a small cell on the Farne Islands inaccessible to the outside world except by a small window and that Cuthbert never left it. The life of St. Benedict written by Pope St. Gregory the Great says that the holy Father, when living on Mount Subiaco, dwelt in an inaccessible cave on a sheer cliff face and that he had no human contact for several years, save from the monk Romanus who would lower food down via rope once in awhile. When these biographers go out of their way to stress that these holy hermits had no human contact, how can we justify presuming that they either left for Mass once a week or else received someone who gave them Holy Communion? Of course, perhaps in communities like the one that sprouted up around Anthony later in his life there would be priests present, but it doesn’t do away with the passages that specifically deny any human interaction for very long periods.
Finally, even if Anthony or Benedict or Cuthbert had someone bringing them Holy Communion, attending Mass is not the same thing as receiving Holy Communion, and simply having someone bring you Holy Communion while you live in a cave does not constitute fulfilling the Sunday obligation, which stipulates not the reception of communion, but the hearing of Mass, regardless of whether or not communion is received. This is an important distinction we should all know; thus, even if it were true that someone brought these holy men communion once a week, the fundamental problem of how they fulfilled their Sunday obligation would not be resolved.
If they knew of the Sunday obligation, and we can reasonably assume they did not have some secret way of fulfilling it, are we left with nothing else than to accuse them of sin for intentionally missing Mass? God forbid; the men are saints because they are holy, and they would not be holy if they were guilty of habitually sinning. What are we to do then? Fortunately, there is one other solution, one that I think is very satisfactory.
Let us begin with two assumptions which I do not think any serious Catholic would dispute: first, that the life of the Desert Fathers and hermits was pleasing to God; and second, that God does not command what is impossible. If we can grant these two simple assumptions, then the problem can be happily resolved.
The eremetical life has always been seen as the most radical way of fulfilling the Evangelical Counsels. This is why this style of life was so praised in the early Church and why the early hermits like Anthony were so universally venerated. Thus, whatever a hermit had to do to create the solitude necessary for successfully living the eremetic life was seen as a good, whether living in a cave on a cliff face, dwelling alone in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, or sitting on top of a pillar for three decades. The whole purpose of eremetical life is to cut oneself off from society, including the society of the Church on earth; not because it is bad, but because the solitude afforded by the eremetical life becomes the occasion of perfecting the soul’s union with God. This has always been understood and has always been seen as a good in Christina spirituality.
We also know that God does not command what is impossible. Given this, in canon law, as in civil law, there have always been exceptions and relaxations of certain laws based on “impossibility of fulfilment”. A Catholic astronaut doing a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station is not held to the Sunday Obligation, for obvious reasons of impossibility of fulfillment; the same applies for Catholics living or traveling in heathen lands where there is no Catholic parish, or even for those Catholics who, though in their homeland, are incapable of attending Mass (camping in Yellowstone twenty miles from the nearest road, laid up in bed with pneumonia, or a single-mother just staying home to attend a sick child). There are a number of reasons why an individual would be practically hindered from getting to Mass, and in these situations – assuming they are legitimate and serious – the canonical obligation is relaxed due to an impossibility of reasonable fulfillment.
Touching on the Sunday Obligation, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
“If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the liturgy of the word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families” (Can. 1248§2).
So Canon Law allows for an exception when “celebration of the Eucharist is impossible”: and recommends participation in reading and praying of the Scriptures personally or in groups as an acceptable substitute in such circumstances. I know that obviously this canon is part of the 1983 Code, but it recapitulates an earlier canonical tradition that no doubt dates from the earliest days of the Church, as Canon Law is nothing but a summation of what the Church has always done, and the laws concerning the Sunday Obligation were not altered at Vatican II. If we presume that the early fathers and hermits understood the obligation this was, even if they hadn’t formulated it systematically, I think the problem disappears.
It does leave us with one question, though: Although we know the obligation is relaxed if its fulfillment is impossible, is it still relaxed if we put ourselves in a situation of impossibility of fulfillment intentionally? Should we not go camping or travel to places where we know ahead of time that we will not be able to attend Mass? And if not, how would this be any different than Benedict choosing to live in a cave for three years with full-knowledge that he would not be able to attend Mass?
It would be tempting to say that such behavior would be wrong for us but alright for Benedict because he is a saint, but I do not think we can allow one standard of behavior for the saints and a different one for everybody else; saints are saints because they are worthy of being imitated, not because we judge them differently and allow bizarre behavior for them but condemn it elsewhere. No; we have to actually account for the saints’ behavior, not just shrug it off as some weird thing that they do because they are saints.
It is my understanding that it is not wrong to intentionally put oneself in a position where fulfillment of the Sunday Obligation is impossible provided this is not our direct intention in doing so. A man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska for recreation and misses Mass does not sin by doing so; a man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska because he knows his pastor will be preaching against adultery that week and he himself has committed adultery and does not want to suffer through hearing his sin condemned from the pulpit does commit a sin, for his purpose in going camping is simply to avoid having to go to Mass. So I think intention is key here.
To go back to the intention of the hermits, for what end did they withdraw from the world and intentionally put themselves in circumstances where the hearing of Mass was not possible?
Certainly their intention was not to get away from God or avoid obligations; if anything, it was to draw closer to God and more perfectly fulfill their Christian obligations by living the Evangelical Counsels. Such an argument against the eremtical life of the saints that depends on intention for justification would certainly end up justifying their choice of life. This is why no ecclesiastical writer or hagiographer ever seems to think it is an issue than the saints and hermits are not able to attend Mass; they understand that their choice of life makes it impossible to fulfill the Sunday obligation and that in these circumstances, that decision is justified in the eyes of God and the Church.
To sum it up: Though it is true that the Sunday Obligation was known of and was in force in the age of the Desert Fathers and hermits, it seems implicitly understood that the law is relaxed in their case due to an impossibility of fulfillment based upon the nature of the eremetical life itself. Because the eremtical life facilitates the fulfillment of the Evangelical Counsels and is pleasing to God, it is a just and holy thing for men and women to devote themselves to God in this way, and consequently, their intention to leave the world, even if it means an inability to attend Mass regularly, is justified entirely.”