Roman Catholic Diocesan Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

The vocation to the eremitic life is an ancient one, recently revived and recognized within the Church as a way of living out consecrated life as a solitary. The words “hermits, anchorites, and recluses” describe persons who are called to live the essence of this life, that is, life lived in stricter separation from the world. Stricter separation is the defining characteristic of this vocation, and both supports and is supported by the hermit’s assiduous prayer and penance.

Diocesan hermit 1

What is a diocesan hermit? “A hermit is one … dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.” – Canon 603

At the present time, there are no diocesan hermits living in the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and we are not accepting candidates.

What is the preparation process like?

For the diocesan hermit, the process is long and involved because it is a vocation lived out according to a rule of life created by the hermit that is approved by the bishop. A hermit typically begins by living a life of solitude under the direction of his spiritual director.   The hermit then needs to begin to discern whether he is called to this way of life, and if so, whether he will live privately as a hermit or will seek canonical status as one.

Over the course of a few years, it is recommended that he write out a rule of life. This rule of life is something which must be worked out by lived experience and specify exactly how the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and a life of solitude and penance are to be observed by the individual hermit. No two rules are identical as the circumstances of each hermit differ. In addition, details must be ironed out pertaining to practical matters such as health insurance, financial support of the hermit (the diocese is not obligated to provide financial support and so hermits typically should have a source of income compatible with their eremitic vocation), and other matters.

After living his rule of life with the tweaks that come from lived experience, the hermit who feels he is called to become a diocesan hermit may petition the bishop to become a canon 603 hermit by turning in the necessary paperwork.  Typically, there is a period of mutual discernment between the hermit and his bishop if his bishop is open to the vocation.  The bishop may decide to allow the hermit to make temporary profession (for at least 3 years), and may eventually admit him to final profession if it is apparent that the candidate has a genuine vocation to the eremitic life.

Diocesan Hermit 2

How long is the process for becoming a diocesan hermit

Usually a hermit has lived in stricter separation from the world for a few years before approaching the bishop about becoming a diocesan hermit. Creating and then adapting a rule of life based on the individual hermit’s lived experience is an essential component of this process and can take years to develop. Because the bishop is the hermit’s superior, not all bishops are ready to take on the responsibility of having a diocesan hermit in his diocese. While there is no typical time frame for a hermit to finally arrive at profession, many bishops would probably call for a minimum of at least 3-5 years of discernment. Many hermits have waited much longer than that for profession.

Is there any book I can read on this vocation?

We recommend the book, The Vocation to the Eremitic Life, by Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA.  A copy of this book is available for people within the Diocese to borrow from the Vocations Office.  This is a hard to find book, but some have reported success in purchasing it directly from the FSPA community in LaCrosse, WI.

Can a diocesan priest become a hermit?

With the bishop’s permission. It is extremely rare for a diocesan priest to receive this permission to live out this particular vocation. The life of the hermit is contemplative and should not involve much clerical ministry because essentially it is very similar to the life of the contemplative religious who observe enclosure. (Strict enclosure is not required of hermits, merely “stricter separation from the world”.)

Diocesan Hermit 3

Is a diocesan hermit a lay person?

If a diocesan hermit is a priest, he is would be both a member of the ordained state and a member of the consecrated state. If the diocesan hermit is a non-ordained man or a woman, the hermit would be in the consecrated state upon profession in the hands of his or her bishop (or delegate) according to the norms of canon 603.

If I become a hermit, will I be able to attend Mass daily?

Some hermits are called to intense solitude or their circumstances are such that daily Mass attendance is impossible due to distance or other factors. It is customary for diocesan hermits who have the permission of their bishop to reserve the Holy Eucharist in their hermitages.

Do diocesan hermits wear a habit?

It depends entirely on the hermit, his/her rule of life, and his/her bishop. Some find it helpful to wear a habit in the hermitage but when they go grocery shopping or run other errands, to wear normal attire. Others find it better to wear appropriate lay (or clerical) clothing all the time. The cowl can be a meaningful symbol of the hermit, but its usage will depend on whether it is implemented by the hermit after consultation with his/her bishop.

Diocesan Hermit 4

Must I be a diocesan hermit to live the life of a hermit?

A lay person (or priest or religious with permission) may live out the life of a hermit without seeking canonical recognition. Such a person may choose to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in leading a life of stricter seclusion. This is admirable when done in a healthy, balanced way, and preferably under the guidance of a prudent spiritual director. In such a case, the hermit is not recognized in law as being a diocesan/canonical hermit, and should not present himself/herself as a Catholic hermit.

From: The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls


Hermits and the Eucharistic Community

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

An American Roman Catholic website has recently published a very interesting – and, to me, important – discussion on the relationship between Hermits and the Eucharistic Community. Put simply, it considers the question: are Hermits obliged to attend the Divine Liturgy (or Mass, to use the Roman Catholic term) on a weekly, or other regular, basis? That is, to fulfil (again in Roman Catholic terms), their “Sunday obligation to attend Mass every Sunday”?

The posting particularly impresses me because of its approach: it seeks to balance history, spirituality, practicality, Canon Law and theology.

I will quote extensively from the website posting, and then offer some comments of my own.


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 Lindisfarne (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.

This is still true for those hermits who reserved the Blessed Sacrament in their cells so that they could receive Communion occasionally, which was common. It does not solve the problem of the Sunday obligation.

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 fulfillment. 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 eremitical life itself. Because the eremitical 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.

It was assumed from the earliest Church that Christians did not – indeed could not – exist in isolation from the Christian Community, meaning the Eucharistic Community, and that they would, and were obliged to participate regularly in that Community, including participating in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the regular reception of Holy Communion. That assumption was maintained in both Eastern and Western Christianity up to the present day.

That there were those who – for example, by reasons of infirmity or illness, of even the commitments of employment – could not so participate all the time but they were exceptions.

So, what of the Hermits? They were men and women who deliberately chose to live apart from society, including the Christian Community, often in extreme isolation.

There would seem to have been, and to be, a number of responses by those Hermits to the Eucharistic Community, running, as it were, across a scale:

  1. Those who simply lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community, and therefore did not, and could not, participate in the Eucharist or receive Communion.
  2. Those who lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community, and therefore did not, and could not, participate in the Eucharist or receive Communion except on the rarest of occasions. St Mary of Egypt, for example, one of the most important of the Desert Mothers, is known to have received Communion only once, perhaps twice, in her lifetime.
  3. Those who lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community, but who found ways of participating in the Divine Liturgy and receiving Communion on rare occasions – for example, when a Priest visited them, or when the Sacrament was brought to them – without them being required to leave their Hermitages.
  4. Those who lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community, but had Priests visit them on a regular basis to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and administer Communion without them being required to leave their Hermitages.
  5. Those who lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community but who left their Hermitages on an occasional basis to participate in the Divine Liturgy and receive Communion.
  6. Those who lived outside and apart from the Eucharistic Community but who left their Hermitages on weekly (or even more frequent basis) basis to participate in the Divine Liturgy and receive Communion. This would seem to be the case with many contemporary Roman Catholic Diocesan Hermits.
  7. Those who lived within a local Eucharistic Community, which could include a monastic or semi-monastic community, and left their Hermitages to participate in that community’s regular celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
  8. Those Hermits who lived in a community of Hermits (for example, a skete in the Orthodox Tradition) in which there was a resident Priest who celebrated the Divine Liturgy and administered Communion on a regular basis.

These categories do not include the case of a Hermit who is a Priest and who could celebrate the Divine Liturgy himself, although in both Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, he would require the attendance of at least one other person (and in all Orthodox traditions would usually require the participation of a Deacon) for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

The earliest Hermits fled, not just from the world but from ecclesiastical office. They refused ordination, just as they (slightly later) refused admission to the monastic state. Their, more or less forced, integration into the ecclesiastical structure was imposed upon them. One can but presume that they were fully aware of their anomalous position within the Eucharistic Community, but chose to live with it. The Communion that they sought did not require physical participation in the Divine Liturgy, or the physical reception of Communion.



The Prayer Rope

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

“The prayer rope is not some kind of amulet with magic or exorcising powers but it is a purely Orthodox holy object used only for praying and nothing else. We use the prayer rope in order to pray secretly. Of course as usually happens in the Church everything that we use for the worship of our God it is also a piece of art. The same thing happens with the prayer ropes. Some of them are very simple. Others are masterpieces and we use them to decorate icons or Crosses inside the Church or in our houses.
Prayer rope 1
The orthodox prayer rope is made of wool, every node is constructed of 7 crosses, so the symbol of Jesus the cross is everywhere, and the prayer rope usually has 33 nodes, the years Jesus lived in earth.

The prayer rope usually is black, the colour of mourning and sorrow, and this remind to us to be sober and serious in our lives. We are sorry for our sins and our weakness and failings before God, our fellow men and ourselves; but in Christ, this sorrow becomes a source of joy and comfort.

The prayer rope is knotted from wool, that is, it has been sheared from a sheep, a reminder that we are rational sheep of the Good Shepherd, Christ the Lord, and also a reminder of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. The cross likewise speaks to us of the sacrifice and victory of the life over death, of humility over pride, of self-sacrifice over selfishness, of light over darkness. And the tassel? To remind us the tears of repentance.”

An excerpt from the speech of His Eminence Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, in the opening of the Exhibition “Orthodox Prayer Ropes – The Jesus Prayer” –

“The earliest form of the prayer rope was, we can easily imagine, like that apparently used by St. Anthony the Great: a plated rope with knots made from palm fronds,  or perhaps from reeds gathered along the Nile River or Red Sea that he used in weaving baskets. This type of prayer cord is still seen in portions of the Middle East, particularly in the desert monasteries.

While the actual details are buried in history, as the use of the prayer rope spread, the preferred materials used in its making changed to leather and plaited wool yarn. We can surmise that such changes reflected both material availability and a desire for durability. In today’s world, the materials used by many have again changed—to synthetics—primarily for cost considerations.

 Prayer rope 2

It might be noted here that the most prevalent forms of traditional Orthodox prayer ropes are NOT an adaptation of the technique of Paul (of Ferme), i.e., a string of stones or beads—although, strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with using a beaded prayer rope, and they can be found in use, e.g., among the Russian Fathers, where they are known as чётки, chotki. However, the traditional technique of using fronds, leather or wool is intended to produce a prayer rope that is quiet. Consider that practicing the Prayer of the Heart—hesychasm—is the practice of stillness such that one can hear their heart beat; the clicking of beads would only serve to distract and not to focus.

Probably the most common prayer rope found is a cord of 100 knots—which supports reciting the Offices by praying the Jesus Prayer a specified number of times as given above—that is ~2-feet long, formed into a loop (Greek: Κομποσκοίνι , komposkini; Russian:  вервица , vervitsa, “small rope”); this is the type, e.g., found in use by the monks on Mt. Athos. The knots, ~¼” diameter, are generally closely “strung” together and are quite complex in form (knots of interlocked crosses as related earlier).

 Prayer rope 3

Typically there is a knotted cross where the prayer rope is joined together to form a loop. Frequently there is also a tassel at the end of the cross. In some prayer rope designs, additional strings with moveable beads—”martyria” (witnesses)—are attached to the main loop in order to keep track of the hundreds of times the prayer is recited. For those who recite a shorter rule (e.g., involving multiples of 10, 25, or 50), the prayer rope may be divided up in sections using larger than normal knots or, more typically, beads. In addition to prayer ropes of 100 knots, it is also possible to find prayer ropes of 10, 12, 33, 50, 150, 300, and 500 knots. The most important thing is to use a prayer rope of a suitable length and with appropriate dividers (or martyria) that matches one’s prayer rule (noting that if it is only being used to practice interior, Prayer of the Heart, the length or divisions thereof is immaterial).

 Prayer rope 4

In keeping with Orthodox tradition to associate every day things with the Heavenly—and so direct our mind there—the knotted cord prayer rope has its own symbology. The prayer rope is traditionally made out of wool, symbolizing the flock of Christ, a reminder that we are rational sheep of the Good Shepherd, Christ the Lord, and also a reminder of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (cf. John 1:29). The most prevalent (but not only) color of a prayer rope is black, symbolizing mourning for one’s sins. The tassel at the end of the cross is to dry the tears shed due to heartfelt compunction for one’s sins (or, if you have no tears, to remind you to weep because you cannot weep); it can also be said to represent the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom, which one can only enter through the Cross.

 Prayer rope 5

The beads (if they are colored)—and possibly a portion of the tassel—are traditionally red, symbolizing the blood of Christ and the blood of the martyrs. And of course the cross itself speaks to us of the sacrifice and victory of life over death, of humility over pride, of self-sacrifice over selfishness, of light over darkness. Finally, the manner of tying the knots may produce either seven or nine crosses in each separate knot, symbolizing the seven heavens or the nine ranks of angels.

There is also a leather form of the prayer rope that is still in use—albeit rarely—which comes down to us through traditions of the Russian Orthodox. This leather prayer rope is made of strips ~½” wide that are cut, intertwined, and sewn (or glued) together to form a flat rope ~2-feet long, whose ends are also sewn together. The strips themselves are folded into a series of small loops ~ ” in diameter, each often containing a short length of small-diameter dowel to help it keep its shape; one small loop forms one prayer counter.

lestovka 1

The main loop of a leather prayer rope normally contains 100 such small loops. This sequence of 100 is divided into four, shorter groups of counters: 12, 38, 33, and 17. These sections are separated by three divider loops of ~¼” diameter (i.e., larger than the small counting loops). Each end of the main loop of the prayer rope also includes three divider-sized loops (for a total of nine) that are separated from the counters by a ~½”-long space. To complete the prayer rope, four triangular leaves are attached to the point where the ends are joined; these are sewn together two and two, the upper pair overlapping the lower.

Like the knotted cord prayer rope, the leather version has its own symbology. At the macro-scale, this prayer rope is intended to resemble a ladder, which is its prevalent name in Church Slavonic: лѣстовка (lestovka). Thus the form of the prayer rope itself reminds its user that prayer is a spiritual ascent into heaven. Association may also be made with the practice of hesychasm as found in the Ladder of Divine Ascent written by St. John Climacus. The four different sized groups of counters are also given meaning as follows: 12 for the number of Apostles; 38 plus the dividers on each end total 40, which is the number of weeks for human gestation and thus reminds us of the pregnancy of the Theotokos; 33 for the years of Christ’s life on earth; and 17 for the number of prophets. The nine dividers represent the nine ranks of angels. The four triangular leaves represent the four Gospels.

The lestovka form of the prayer rope is also suited for counting litany responses and prostrations. For example, the groupings of 12 and 40 (38 plus 2 dividers) can be used for counting “Lord have mercy” responses that are found in many of the Offices. Other combinations, such as 30 and 50, are also possible. For such liturgical purposes it is clearly more practical than the more familiar variety of knotted cord prayer rope.

lestovka 2

Tradition tells us that the lestovka came to Russia from Jerusalem. We can speculate that its arrival there coincided with the work of St. Cyprian, metropolitan of Moscow and Kiev, when, at the end of 14th century, he undertook actions to replace the Studite liturgical practices originally introduced in the 11th century through the efforts of St. Theodosius with the Jerusalem Typicon (or Typicon of St. Sabbas). However, little can be said of its actual introduction or prevalence in use.

While “Old Believers” would have you believe that the lestovka was the form of prayer rope in use in Russia prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1652, it is easy to show that this was not the case (just as they are wrong about early Russian traditions concerning how to make the Sign of the Cross). Consider, for example, Saint Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake ( Cв. Евфросин Синеезерский ), a schemamonk and abbot who was martyred by the Latins on March 20, 1612. When his relics were uncovered in 1655, they were found to be incorrupt; also preserved with him were the Schema-epitrachelion, -cowl, and two prayer ropes that the Saint was wearing when he was martyred and buried the prayer ropes appear to be чётки (chotki), but in any case, they are clearly not lestovka).


Hermits and Holiness: Solitude for the Sake of the Church

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

“In Slinger, Wisconsin, Sister Joseph Marie of the Trinity leads a simple, separated life of prayer.  She is a hermit, a particular religious vocation that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (920) describes as “a call to find in the desert, in the thick of the spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One.”

Her call to live a solitary life began as a teenager, when she was drawn towards the Carmelite order after reading the writings of St. John of the Cross. However, her desire for religious life was put on hold due to some physical setbacks, but her interior calling never went away.


“In 1982, a bishop was my spiritual director during a retreat. I told him that my life was a blank check for the Lord to fill out. Whatever he willed of me, I would do. Subsequently, that bishop authenticated my call to the solitary life,” Sister Joseph Marie told the Register.

“In 1983, I was given a nihil obstat [providing approval] from Rome and professed my first vows on May 29, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.”

Ironically, her canonical status as a consecrated hermit became effective in November of 1983 at the very moment that the revised Code of Canon Law took effect. The 1983 Code of Canon Law made particular provisions for men and women who felt a calling to consecrate themselves to God through the hermitic life without the necessity of being a member of a religious congregation or institute.

In Mesa, Idaho, Sister Mary Beverly Greger, a Hermit Sister of Mary, has lived as a hermit for 32 years. She is the co-founder of Marymount Hermitage, which was solemnly dedicated by Bishop Sylvester William Treinen of Boise in 1984:  “God called me at age 7 to belong to him,” she said. “At the age of 17, I entered the convent and became an active religious in Oregon.”


She was a middle-school teacher for 10 years. After her final profession, however, she heard the voice of Jesus calling her to a life of prayer, silence and solitude as a hermit.

“Giving up community life and teaching was the most difficult thing I have had to do in my life. It was a great sacrifice,” she related. “After about 15 years in community, I left to become a hermit in Idaho; and, soon, I will be celebrating 50 years as a consecrated woman in and for the Church.”

While she couldn’t imagine being happier in her unique vocation, Sister Beverly’s day-to-day life is not without struggles. “My most serious and consistent struggle is to stay focused on ‘the one thing necessary,’ like the Virgin Mary: that is an interior life that is intense and dedicated to prayer. Like any American, it is easy for work and other responsibilities to intrude on my time and energies.”

While Sister Joseph Marie deals with staying on the right spiritual track as well, she noted that she often feels ostracized from some in the Church community, and even other religious, who think her life of solitude and prayer is crazy, odd and useless.

“This is certainly painful,” she said, “but that can be purifying — and, therefore, good can come of it.” “This particular calling requires spiritual maturity and a balanced personality,” Sister Joseph Marie explained. “It is a vocation that can seem appealing to deluded individuals seeking little else than security in a religious setting — imagining a roof over their heads and food on the table, with nothing to do but pray and sleep and be taken care of. That is neither real life nor a real vocation.”

Both of these canonical hermits adhere to a rule of life and have a particular charism similar to any member of a religious order. In Sister Beverly’s case, her day starts at 4am and ends at 8pm. In between are many hours of prayer, chores, reading and study. She shared, “My life is based on the Rule of St. Benedict, but I am not a Benedictine. The Constitution of the Hermit Sisters of Mary adapts the (Benedictine) Rule to the eremitical life, and the bishop of Boise is my superior.”

Since its founding in 1983, Marymount Hermitage has usually had a resident chaplain, allowing for daily Mass. However, if that is not the case, she said that her trip across rural Idaho for Mass can consume three to four hours of her day. With the hermitage’s 100 acres of high-desert ranch land and 10 buildings, Sister Beverly’s day is also filled with her apostolate of offering welcome to those who want to come for a retreat and “a place to pray more deeply and develop their relationship with God.”

She makes herself available to teach or conduct retreats at local parishes or at Boise’s diocesan retreat center as well.

Sister Joseph Marie told the Register that her rule of life is one she wrote and is rooted in Carmelite spirituality. The Carmelite Hermit of the Trinity Rule is “above all a law of love, lived with love and for love,” she said. Besides the important work of daily Eucharistic worship and liturgical prayer, her apostolates are varied. “The hermit’s day consists of required elements, but the precise schedule is subject to rearrangement if and when God’s plan brings unexpected events at a moment’s notice,” she noted.

While the canonical eremitical life was canonically blessed in 1983, its roots can be traced to the early Church and the Desert Fathers, who were some of the first Christian monks to live in solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

Their sayings, which consisted of spiritual advice, reflections and anecdotes, became the inspiration for Western monasticism for such communities as the Benedictines, Carthusians and the Camaldolese Fathers, among a myriad of others.

Father Cyprian Consiglio is the prior of the New Camalodi Hermitage in Big Sur, Calif., a community of 16 hermits who try to spend half of their day in community work and the other half in personal prayer and study:

New Camaldoli

“Our charism actually consists of what is called the triplex bonum, the threefold good: community, solitude and missionary martyrdom,” he said.

Solitude is primary spent in each of the hermit’s personal cells. The cells in a Camaldolese hermitage are separated from each other and have a garden. These physically separate dwellings make the hermitage look something like a monastic village, according to Brother Ignatius Tully.

“Each of our cells has a sleeping area, chapel, bathroom, a central space for daytime activities or studies,” he said. He added that the cell should provide a silent atmosphere for the monk to facilitate contemplation and encounter God…

“I think our vocation offers both witness and intercession. Perhaps we witness to the world, with all of its distractions, that spending time alone and living simply can bring immense inner rewards,” said Brother Ignatius.

“The other area of great importance is intercession. The hermit monk may live with a level of isolation from the world, but that does not mean that he’s separate from it. As one spends time in solitude, I think one starts to see that the monk brings the needs and wounds of the world ever more into one’s prayer.”

Sister Beverly agrees.

“The eremitical life in the Church flourishes most when the culture is stressed and needy and the Church is suffering and persecuted. The renewal of the eremitical life in our day, which we are witnessing, is necessary because the prayer and sacrifices of hermits are needed to support the life of the Spirit in the Church, in the lives of Christians, in our troubled era.”

From: Eddie O’Neill “Hermits and Holiness: Solitude for the Sake of the Church” The National Catholic Register

Hermits and the Roman Catholic Church

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

Carol McDonough “Hermits and the Roman Catholic Church. Recovering an Ancient Vocation” The Way, 54/2 (April 2015), 53–69

“…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’.

Vita consecranda

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.

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.”

This paper outlines the experiences of a number of contemporary Roman Catholic Hermits: 4 from the USA; 2 from Australia; 1 from Canada and 1 from Africa.

“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 diocesan priests, the call will be tested with the bishop. Some may be enabled to live the eremitic life after testing without taking the vows of canon 603; others may be received under the canon at their own or the bishop’s call. Some may become a hermit-priest guest of, or live ‘behind’, a religious community on their property. A few diocesan priests have pioneered new eremitic communities, some of them erected as Religious Institutes of Diocesan Right. 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.”

Carol McDonough “Hermits and the Roman Catholic Church. Recovering an Ancient Vocation” The Way, 54/2 (April 2015), 53–69 Digital text available on-line at:

Revealing the Recluse: The Sad and Secret Lives of Hermits

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

“The word “hermit” often elicits thoughts of men with long, scraggly hair and beards, eyes lined with wrinkles and filled with wisdom, and clothes a bit torn and dirty but otherwise, no worse for wear. Often, images of St. Jerome and St. Anthony come to mind, or the exiled Socrates—even Henry Thoreau may qualify for a period of his life.

St Jerome

One might even think of a hermit crab. Interestingly enough, the latter is the most accurate description of who and what a hermit primarily is. In a nutshell, a hermit is someone who intentionally isolates him/herself.

A Life of Religious Seclusion

Under most circumstances, one turns the life of a hermit for religious reasons. For example, off the coast of Ireland is an island called Skellig Michael.

Skellig Michael

Archaeology has revealed numerous naturally carved caves and man-made huts—many which provide evidence of hermitage life. Further, early medieval texts discuss Skellig Michael (perhaps in not quite so obvious words), as a place where those looking for religious seclusion often venture.

Skellig Michael is not the only location with a longstanding history of solitary contemplators. In fact, the tradition of living as a hermit stretches back far before Christianity arrived in Britain, and long before the practice became associated with religion.

In Asia, the term “hermit” was not associated with religion immediately. The steretype today indicates there is often a correlation between the two ideas, however, this is a relatively recent perspective—especially in China. Ancient Chinese hermits were simple people who felt they were living in a world of corruption, and decided they had the choice to separate themselves from such a society. While early hermits from Japan were more spiritually influenced than their western counterparts, these folk fall into the category of wandering hermits, rather than recluses. Consider the pre-crucifixion life of Jesus of Nazareth: the wanderer offering reform and redemption. These early Japanese hermits functioned in a similar fashion.

Byzantine Hermits: Isolation in Public

There is no correct location in which one has to go to join the life of the hermits. The only “qualification”, if it may even be called that, is to be completely isolated from every day, regular life. While “hermitages” and “recluse societies” did exist—locations specifically for those who wanted to live a life dedicated in every aspect to religion only—they were not the “right” place to go. In fact, these locations could be argued as somewhat ironic notion; yet they were no less valid. Similarly, in the Byzantine Empire, the life of a hermit meant living in isolation in public. The tradition, referred to as “climbing a pole” enabled one to isolate his/herself by height, partaking in an existence of spiritual exclusion where all could see. Thus, the location of the hermit mattered far less than the hermit’s exclusion from regular society. Among the like and unlike, one maintained the title “hermit” if that one “rule” was followed….

An Escape from Society

Yet the lives of hermits are not limited to those who exist only for their religion. The term “hermit” can apply to those who simply wish to remove themselves from the “normal” world. Perhaps their opinions do not align with those of every day society; perhaps they would like to live away from toxic fumes or technological activity. Whatever their reasons for distancing themselves from the rest of the population, these non-religious seekers are nonetheless hermits.

Community and Culture

Something interesting to consider is how pertinent the concept of community and belonging have been throughout the course of human civilization. It is considered unusual for hermits to live as they do; one of the first indicators archaeologists look for when investigating a region or examining human and animal evidence is how the people and what remains of their culture have been portrayed. Are they buried in groups? Does it appear that there were funerary rituals the civilization took part in as a whole? Is there evidence of home life—parents living with children, possibly also with their own parents? The questions go on and on, and most pertain to the way individuals interacted not only with their environment but with each other.

Hermits break this pattern. Perhaps that is why they are overwhelmingly fascinating to so many people. Further, the aforementioned hermitages and recluse societies appear to indicate that, despite a desire to separate from the civilized world, sometimes, it is not always as possible as one would believe. Even those who want to be on their own sometimes want to be alone together.

There is much to be learned about the life of a hermit. Each hermit lives his/her life differently from the next, though the core elements of being a hermit remain. Those who believe themselves to be “other” than the “normal world” may find solace in solitude; those who seek religious enlightenment, or freedom from a governmental system they disapprove of. Some simply choose to live a life of simplicity. The reasons, and the dedication, of the hermit is far more intriguing than where he/she chooses to go. However, reasons and dedication cannot always be well-explained—particularly by those who are not engaging in a hermit’s life; so perhaps it is good—respectful, even—to leave the mysteries of the hermit to the hermit himself.”



Solitude and Silence 5: In Practice

Posted in Uncategorized on December 12, 2017 by citydesert

What Do You Do During Times of Solitude and Silence?

Once you’ve carved out a little pocket of solitude and silence, what do you do during that time?

Calhoun aptly describes solitude as a “container discipline,” as it a discipline in and of itself, but it can also be filled with other disciplines. These include the discipline of silence, of course, but others as well:

  • Reflection
  • Meditation
  • Study
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Journaling
  • Self-examination

Silent solitude is also a fruitful time in which to make decisions, especially those with significant consequences. Prepare yourself before you withdraw, by doing as much research about your question as possible. Examine both sides of the issue. Ask for advice from others. This will give the details and data you gather a chance to percolate, consciously and unconsciously, through your mind. Then, during your solitary retreat, you can mentally sift through this predigested intel and watch for what intuitions arise in your soul.

What Is the Relationship Between Solitude and Society?

“Solitude shows us what we should be, society shows us what we are.” —Lord David Cecil

“Do not flee to solitude from the community. Find God first in the community, then He will lead you to solitude.” —Thomas Merton

“It is easy, in the world, to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy, in solitude, to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

In reading through this extensive enumeration and celebration of the benefits of solitude and silence, one might conclude that these states are superior to that of community and society — that life outside the crowd is more real than life within it; that we are only our true selves when we are by ourselves; and that the more we can get of “authentic” solitude and the less of “artificial” society, the better.

But drawing this conclusion would be a mistake.

While there are some called to a life of complete solitude and silence as a vocation, for the vast majority of people, the benefits of these disciplines are not found in their exclusion of society, but in their contrast with it. The advantage of life lived apart is the alternative set of qualities and perspective it furnishes compared to life lived together. Silence and solitude function best as supplements to society, not as substitutes for it.

Solitude and society are in fact equally important; each acts as a vital enhancement and balancing mechanism for the other.

In solitude we garner new intuitions and ideas; in society, we test and validate them. This public vetting of our private pondering is crucial, for as Koch observes, “Profound visions arrive in solitude—but so do grand delusions.” The crowd may find weaknesses in our ideas, which we then return to solitude to address.

In solitude, we discover new insights; in society, we have the pleasure of expanding on them in conversation with friends. Such discussions beget their own insights, which we can then mull over in solitude. Emerson exalted in this reciprocal dynamic: “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.”

alone sunset

In solitude we foster a bond with others that the closeness of physical intimacy actually stymies in some ways. That is, we often appreciate someone more when we’re apart than together. Outside the immediacy of social engagement, the frenzy of response and counter response, we get a chance to reflect on our love for someone, on the qualities they possess that we admire, and who they are to us. For example, I probably feel the greatest love for my children not when we’re together during the day, but when I think about them while lying in bed at night. We then return from the affection-swelling, love-reaffirming state of solitude more eager to re-engage with our loved ones in the flesh.

In solitude we can get a better sense of ourselves; in society we ensure we don’t get too carried away with ourselves. As Emerson put it:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”

Society and solitude each represent one half of a cyclic process; each state checks and propels the other in what Henri Nouwen calls a “dynamic unity.” As Koch puts it, “in a variety of different ways, the virtues of solitude find their completion in encounter.”

While doing everything for an audience constricts our thoughts and behaviors, the desire to celebrate with others the wonder and excitement of Truth discovered and Beauty found is not only human, but even virtuous. As Koch writes:

“We forget that, as Anthony Storr once put it, ‘art is communication . . . implicitly or explicitly, the work which [the artist] produces in solitude is aimed at somebody.’

The great bulk of creative work produced in solitude is aimed at an audience . . . refusal to seek this communion is both immoral and self-defeating: the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Or as the poet William Cowper put it:

“How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude! But grant me still a friend in my retreat, Whom I may whisper—solitude is sweet.”

From: Brett and Kate McKay “The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude and Silence”