“After the near-disappearance of visible hermits in the West between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, hermit-priests slowly returned during the early twentieth century, often struggling to obtain diocesan permission to test, then continue living, this difficult vocation.
Even into the late twentieth century, the capacity in the Western Churches to understand and to hand on the Antonian eremitic traditions remained variable, whereas in the Orthodox communions the cultural transmission was continuous from the fourth century…
It was the lives and writings of such people that provided sufficient impetus for the issue to be raised at Vatican II; and, in 1983 the enabling ‘Eremitical Life’ canon (603) was legislated in the Code of Canon Law, under ‘Norms Common to All Institutes of Consecrated Life’.
Those of Christ’s faithful who are called to eremitical living are enabled by it to ‘withdraw further from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through the silence of solitude’.
In “Vita consecrata”, John Paul II wrote:
“It is a source of joy and hope to witness in our time a new flowering of … men and women hermits, belonging to ancient Orders or new Institutes, or being directly dependent on the Bishop, bear[ing] witness to the passing nature of the present age by their inward and outward separation from the world …. Such a life ‘in the desert’ is an invitation to their contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord.8
And the 1992 Catechism states:
“Without always professing the three evangelical counsels publicly, hermits ‘devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance’. They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him.”
The newly enacted canon and explanation in the Catechism, together with affirmation in Vatican documents such as “Vita consecrata”, have authorised diocesan bishops to consecrate canonical diocesan hermits and anchorites, whether lay, diocesan priest or former religious—after rigorous testing of the sense of call, long formation and ecclesial approval of each one’s rule of life.
Before its disruption by the eremitic call, the former life, formation, work and service of these hermits may have been in any of the life paths of laypeople (single or married), priests or religious. As Jesus taught: ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ (John 3: 8) So it appears with everyone moved by ‘the spontaneous and surprising increase in solitary vocations’.
There are now all kinds of Roman Catholic hermits, some dependent on their bishop, some members of orders or institutes, others living in a parish, usually in ordinary homes, hidden and unnoticed, faithfully living out their intimacy with Christ for Church and world. Discussing how women, in particular, are re-embracing solitude, Bernadette Flanagan notes:
In the expressions of new monasticism … the eremitical strand is well represented … deeply inspired by the life of the third-century desert hermits, since the anonymity that their desert hermitages provided [is] equally available … in the immensity of the modern city.
The testing of an eremitic vocation includes not only discerning the general qualities emergent or existent in the person being tested and formed towards eremitic consecration, but also noticing how life’s former joys fall away, to be replaced with desires for solitude, simplicity, and inner attending and responding to God. This ‘falling away’ is one sign of a
contemplative solitary vocation. The changes in someone’s inner life as it deepens into God, as well as the person’s outer orientation and behaviour, are tested with a priest, spiritual director or religious community…
For religious (including priests), the call to solitude and deeper prayer may be able to be lived within existing vows and obedience, with the agreement of the community leadership and chapter. If their order or institute is unable to accommodate a solitary vocation within the current expression of its founding charism, the situation may lead to exclaustration
(permission to live outside the community, either retaining or relinquishing vows and obedience). Some former religious have been re-received under canon 603. Religious who are being allowed to embrace solitude are following the formation pathway directed by St Benedict in the fifth century: communitarian formation through monastic living followed by
eremitic living, the path of his ‘second kind of monk’.
For laypeople, discernment may unfold over many years. Their primary formation will have been through secular life; their secondary formation will be into the eremitic vocation, however determined in a diocese. A person with a proven eremitic vocation may ultimately remain in the private domain, with or without vows, or may make simple promises at a
parish Mass. To become a canonical hermit, he or she must be accepted and consecrated at Mass under canon 603 by the local bishop. Or the person may be received, formed and consecrated within the requirements of an ancient or recent religious eremitic order; or, remaining lay, he or she may request and be allowed to live near or in an order or institute,
participating in sacraments and liturgy. Lay hermits and those consecrated under canon 603 invariably have to negotiate and provide their own means of support, shelter and income, however…
The ministries and missions of the worlds’ hermits are rich indeed. The visible signs of hermits’ lives today include the occasional news report about their consecrations, but also web resources and printed materials by and about them. These hermits live as solitaries or in eremitic communities, each in a modern form of Abba/Amma–disciple relationship lived through spiritual accompaniment and direction. They express in their vocation journeys one, usually more, of Anthony’s ‘ways’, not necessarily recognised as such by those inheriting them. We cannot hear the words and the prayer of the hundreds of hidden, silent ones, for few write about prayer and the life of prayer hidden in God….
The consecrated life may experience further changes in its historical forms, but there will be no change in the substance of a choice which finds expression in a radical gift of self for love of the Lord Jesus and, in him, of every member of the human family …. How can we not recall with gratitude to the Spirit the many different forms of consecrated life which he has raised up throughout history and which still exist in the Church today? The choice of total self-giving to God in Christ is in no way incompatible with any human culture or historical situation.
As he has reminded us in this Year of Consecrated Life: ‘Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone.’
From: Carol McDonough “Hermits and the Roman Catholic Church. Recovering an Ancient Vocation” “The Way”, 54/2 (April 2015), 53–69
Available on-line at: http://www.theway.org.uk/back/542McDonough.pdf