Life as a contemplative hermit priest in the UK and the Journey to the Desert.

Why are you becoming a hermit?  Isn’t being a priest enough? what’s wrong with you bruv?” asked my brother Justin so many years ago “Aren’t you happy as a priest anymore?”  This was not as easy as I thought it would be

Why I became a hermit letter“Well  J.J. I replied “I’ve travelled the world, done my bit for Queen and Country, served the Church in parishes and dioceses, lectured at universities.  In fact I have never been idle a single day in my life, and being a Hermit is not not really retirement.  It’s a hard life, demanding and a lot of responsibility.  My brother seemed sad for me, which was the opposite to how I had expected him to feel.  I wished, rather, for him to be happy for me, to share my joy as he did when I became a deacon and priest.  Since I turned 17 I had hardly been at home, but had always kept in touch with my parents, 11 brothers and sisters and the legions of cousins that Catholic families seem to have.  Now I was going to be at home but in touch with not a single member of my family except for 4 times a year.  My brother asked “so no visits, no pubs, no telephone calls, no kebab and chips at your vicarage at 4am when I turn up out of the blue because I need my big brother for a chat, no more trips I shook my head “no.  He looked rather distressed for me and then said “but you’ll be dead to the world bruv!….

morti al mondo
but you’ll be dead to the world bruv!

“Exactly! I affirmed, for  you see the hermit life is as a mystery of faith, not as profound as the Holy Trinity, nor as predominant as the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  Nevertheless, like all mysteries, it does contain contradictions.

Several people I know had elected and tried the hermits life, for whatever reason.  Many were totally unprepared, some had no idea of the commitment required whilst others were found not to have a true vocation.  Why is That?  Jesus himself told us “You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you; and have appointed you, that you should go John 15:16

Genuine vocation arises from an acquiescent response to the discernment of the authorities of the Church.  Early Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen Adamantius,  St Anthony of the Desert, Saint Paul the First Hermit, Pachomius, Serapion of Thmuis, St. Isaias the Solitary, Orsisius and St. Basil are some among many other theologians have written that “the hermit life is a living martyrdom” now if that is not a contradiction I don’t know what is. “They transform their spare time into busy leisure and at the rest in tranquil activity” as St Bruno recommended. This solitude does not exclude fraternal life. From time to time, long walks in Mother Nature, usually, two by two, favour personal dialogue. These friendly encounters help sharing God‘s message and generate necessary recreation since “if the bow is kept continually, it loses its resilience and becomes less fit for its works” (St Bruno).

The humorist and literary critic Will Cuppy said “a hermit is simply a person to whom civilisation has failed to adjust itself” I found this very apt.

It is a tale of two cities.  It is the best of lives and the worst of lives.  A life of wisdom and foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom.  A life of love and hate. “quote from Fr. Redmond the hermit.” We are not describing the two cities by Charles Dickens but what Saint Augustine calls the city of the world and the City of God.  It is the hermit’s endeavour to draw one closer to the other.

It is  an unconditional love toward God, the Church and his Mother.  An aversion of sin, it   relies on faith yet is incredulous.  Without a true vocation it would be weak, unilluminated and displeasing.  Whilst with true vocation there is illumination, incandescence and allure.

My Journey towards becoming a hermit began at the Cistercian Abbey of  Mellifont, Collon, Co. Louth Ireland, the Abbot Bernard Boyle told me that Mellifont is where some come to “test the waters” a little because they sense that God may be calling them to something more; others for reasons that they can’t quite articulate. I found my time with the Cistercians extremely rewarding, it was tranquil, they sought God, conformity with Christ, solitude and separation from the world, practise unceasing prayer, work, lead a life of simplicity (no gadgets, radio, television, computers somewhat like the Amish aversion to electronics and “stuff), live in community, practice hospitality as St Benedict urged “receive all visitors as we would receive Christ himself” and are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and Symbol of the Church in the order of faith, love and perfect union with Christ.  My spiritual advisor always seemed to be there when I needed him, occasionally he would leave little handwritten note cards tacked to my door:

Contemplation must be possible if man is to remain human” and another one would say “The contemplative way requires first of all and above all renunciation of this obsession with the triumph of the individual or collective will to power…”.

I was always pleased to receive a note, or a chat and sometimes we just sat there by the old magnificent pine tree, who’s branches seemed to undulate over and underground like a wave.  My time with the Cistercians was extremely enriching, I learned much, about eremitic vocation, about myself, began to appreciate routines, work, prayer, nature, fasting, gardening.  They kept me busy, advised me well.  eight months later found it hard to leave as I felt I belonged there, yet someone urged me onwards.

Next the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey in Buckfastleigh, Devon.  I was met by Abbot David Charlesworth a jovial monk who had an air of “cool dude” about him.  For nearly a thousand years, people have been drawn to Buckfastleigh.  They go to search for God.  The God who is everywhere, certainly, but once they happened upon this place, they sensed that its beauty, its silence and tranquillity, its community of people who were similarly searching, made it a place where God might easily be found.  I was settled in by the Novice Master in the monastery proper.  My room was, as is any monastery room, comfortable and adequate.  The library was in the adjoining corridor, the refectory downstairs, the office of the Novice Master “My door is always open”.  Here is a timetable and you’ll be saying the 8am mass in the morning.  I’ll let you rest and see you at Supper (19:15) after Vespers at 18:30, Benedicite.  I went to unpack the few items I’d brought with me from Mellifont, 6 books, 2 shirts, 2 pairs of trousers, 7 socks and under garments, cassock, chalice, rosary, I pair of sandals, pyjamas, passport for my onward journey, Travellers Cheques and credit card courtesy of the Diocese.  My time at Buckfast was different from that at Mellifont, there was a different momentum.  I had less to do which I found somewhat alarming, when I spoke too the Novice Master he said they had wanted me to get to know the Abbey, routine, settle in and feel the spirit of the place.

There are several ways in which one can live as a hermit, Canon 603 §2 states that A hermit is recognised by law as 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.

The Holy Spirit opened a seed packet marked “A Call to the Hermit Life”.  As the earth rotates it disperses those seeds to every part of the globe.

Canon 603 hermits are all very distinctive from each other, having our very own rule of life congruous to our disposition, our biography and condition in the Church.  Each rule is different, distinctive and personal.

The first part of Canon 603 tells us: In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognises the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.

Therefore our withdrawal from the world and into the desert is stricter but we devote our lives to the salvation of the world.  This is yet another contradiction, withdrawing at the same instant devoting our lives to the praise of God …  “To pray always for those who never pray; to pray for those who have done you wrong; to pray for those who sin every day and every hour of their lives; to pray for all sorts and conditions of men, no matter what their colour, no matter what their creed; to pray that God will remove doubt and scepticism from the world, and open all human eyes to the way of faith and salvation.”  This I feel is the cardinal duty of the hermit.

After a few months it was time to move on to Italy, this part I had really been looking forward to but would be the most difficult as It would be nearly impossible to see any of my family some where at the top of Italy others in Sicily and I would be in the middle, yet it was also something that I really had to get used to.  We are a very close tribe of Ginex’s, even when abroad we always kept in touch (well most of us do), visiting each other when we could.  My first priority upon arriving at Ciampino airport in Rome is to find the Casa di Accoglienza Paolo VI in the Viale Vaticano, run by the Piccole Suore della Sacra Famiglia and then to find Fr. Gabriele Amorth at the Scala Santa, Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, and with whom I would spend 5 days for my course before my journey continued onwards to Montecassino where I would spend 4 months.

Montecassino has always been a place of fascination for me, I’d been there several times before, but the first time I’d been met by the Abbot Bernardo IV D’Onorio da Veroli OSB, he was “the 190th abbot”.  Montecassino is a whole different kettle of fish.  I’d been there before, got lost inside, and was only saved by the Sext bell when everybody came together and I just followed them otherwise I might have been lost for days.  Montecassino always reminded me of the Buddhist Temple at Lhasa in Tibet, huge, imposing and almost unreachable.  At Montecassino I learnt the finer details of the Lectio Divina my appointed spiritual advisor telling me there are several phases of the Lectio Divina: reading, listening, meditation, prayer, and contemplation; and that the experience of Lectio Divina should be a gentle alternation between action (reading and spoken prayer, and conversation with God, for example) and reception (silence, reflection, meditation, listening, both to God and His words).

From Montecassino I went on to to the Certosa dei Santi Stefano e Bruno in Calabria with the Carthusian Order.  I felt drawn here from that moment a year ago when I departed to Mellifont.  I was surprised to find a Greek Orthodox hieroschemamonk from Mount Athos.  The Canon list three methods or instruments which the hermit is to use in his apostolatus I was told by Frà Basilio “il silenzio della solitudine, la preghiera costante e la penitenza” meaning the silence of solitude, constant prayer and penance.  We are not saying “silence and solitude” but “silence of solitude” in Latin “solitudinis silentio” or “the silence of solitude” yet another mystery? and another self-contradiction!  When I was studying Canon Law at the Franciscan International Study Centre (University of Kent at Canterbury) I never viewed Canon Law as poetic and definitely not lyrical.  Father Jarlath McDonagh O.F.M. Conv. (Requiescat In Pace et Amore)  our lecturer made it positively equanimous and prosaic (I simply have no other way of describing it).  Life at Santi Stefano and Bruno is what I had been called toward; Serra San Bruno is surrounded by the flourishing forest of the Serre Mountains, Saint Bruno searching for a place of solitude, came to a stop here in Calabria, (perhaps because he was about to reach facing the coast of Sicily or perhaps because it was a paradise on Earth) he built a monastery immersed in the rich natural beauty of the territory that is now known as Serra San Bruno. A town grew from it and is a wonderful place to visit, especially for those who enjoy both nature and tranquility.  At Serra San Bruno I learnt how to listen to the silence and become accustomed to it and become comfortable with it.  Try it! My challenge to you the reader… its not easy,  you’ll need to get rid of your mobile phone (that stopped you didn’t it) in fact all electronic devices, TV, Radio, anything that makes a sound rid yourself of all stimuli.  Stop speaking and be somewhere that has no man made sounds like traffic, people, etc… now you are beginning to scratch the surface.  The day is divided between prayer, work, study and moments of relaxation.  I learnt much here, I am indebted to my Brothers in Christ at Serra San Bruno for their loving hospitality, patience and care.  The treasure chest containing the hermit’s riches of contemplation will one day hopefully be opened if I persevere and… if I can find the key, with the help of our Lord.

My time was coming to an end and having had permission from my Bishop and by invitation of the Greek Orthodox hieroschemamonk I made my way to Brindisi to catch a ferry to Petras in Greece on the Grimaldi Lines, then on to Thessaloniki which on a Saturday is not easy.  Armed with my “Diamonitirion or entry pass as the entry procedure to Mount Athos is monitored.  No pass no entry.  My visit there was for 3 weeks at the Holy Monastery of Megistis Lavras.  I thought there would be a language barrier but surprisingly many spoke English or Italian.  Lavra is built on a small plateau

Access all areas Mount Athos
to get on to Mount Athos you have to have a “Diamantirion”

on the northeast side of the peninsula, half an hour’s walk from the sea. It was founded in 963 by St. Athanasios the Athonite and the nucleus was completed with grants from the Emperors Nicephoros Phocas and Ioannis Tsimiskis. The Catholicon is of the 10th century; the first one built in Agion Oros, frescoed in the 16th century with the excellent work of Theophanis the Cretan. Its feast day is on July 5, honoring the death of St. Athanasios. The tomb of the founder is in a chapel off the Catholicon. The monastery courtyard contains, in addition to the others, the chapel of Panagia Koukouzelissa where the homonymous icon is kept; the trapeze with frescoes by Cretan painters of the 16th century (probably Theophanis); the marble phiale for holy water and two 1000-year old cypress trees. Among the most valuable relics, many of which are kept in a modern vestry, are: a piece of the Holy Cross, the crown and the so-called robe of Nicephoros Phocas, the cross and iron staff of St. Athanasios and the heads of the martyrs Alexandros and Eustratios, as well as those of the bishops Basil the Great and Michael Sinadon. The library contains approximately 2.200 manuscripts and 30.000 printed works. Megisti Lavra is 1st in the hierarchy of the 20 monasteries.  I was made extremely welcome and I managed to visit 5 other monasteries Vatopedion, Iviron, Simonos Petras, Karakolou and Pantokratoros. Greek Orthodox monasteries are not as quiet as Catholic monasteries, I think the volume of tourists does not help, but they are made to leave at a certain time of the day as lay persons are not allowed to remain on the island peninsula.  Yet the experience was wonderful and completed my search with the gift of visiting the other Monasteries, their culture (perhaps because I’m Sicilian¿) has always fascinated and enthralled me.  Their liturgical services are rather quick! I saw a priest elevated to archpriest in under 7 minutes. In. Out. Done, on the other hand another service took 4 Hours. I think the visit to Athos helped a great deal as Bro. Alexis had shown me so many wonderful things, told stories of the Desert Fathers from a different perspective and they would not stop feeding me.  I thank God for this amazing gift and opportunity.

I found that the flight from Athens back to the UK extremely irritating at this stage.  The noise was deafening and unrelenting.  London was just as noisy and smelly, indifferent and rude; at Victoria bus terminal I walked past a pub where two male teenagers in business suits (drunk at 1.p.m.) were having a punch up, the language was… well not really language but Satan unleashed! it was horrendous and I’ve done several years in the armed forces and do not blast easily. Looking at my human brothers and sisters, their behaviour, language, demeanour frankly I was now ready to die to the world and begin my journey in the desert, in the silence of solitude, praying for the world (it looks like it needs it).  By now I resolved myself to follow the Carthusian Way whose only goal  is contemplation, by the power of the Spirit, living as unceasingly as possible in the light of the love of God for us, made manifest in Christ.  This implies a purity of heart, and charity: “Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

Monastic tradition also calls this goal pure and continuous prayer. The fruits of contemplation are: liberty, peace, and joy. O Bonitas! O Goodness, was the cry which issued from the heart of St. Bruno.  But the unification of the heart and the entrance into contemplative rest is an arduous and long journey, which their Statutes describe as such:

“Whoever perseveres without defiance in the cell and lets himself be taught by it tends to make his entire existence a single and continual prayer. But he may not enter into this rest without going through the test of a difficult battle. It is the austerities to which he applies himself as someone close to the Cross, or the visits of God, coming to test him like gold in the fire. Thus purified by patience, fed and strengthened by studied meditation of Scripture, introduced by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the recesses of his heart, he will thus be able to, not only serve God, but adhere to him. Statutes 3.2

All monastic life thus consists of this journey towards the heart and all the meaning of our life is oriented towards this end. It helps the monk unite his life to charity, introducing it to the depths of his heart.  Truthfully, it is not this end which distinguishes them from other contemplative monks (Trappist, Benedictines, etc.), but the borrowed path, of which the essential characteristics are: the solitude, a positive mixture of solitary and community life, the Carthusian liturgy.

Solitude

Sharing certain monastic values with other contemplative monks, for example: silence, work, poverty, chastity, obedience, listening to Scripture, prayer, and humility.  Others are unique to the Carthusians.  The first essential characteristic of Carthusian life is the vocation of solitude, to which they are especially called. The Carthusian monk searches for God in solitude.

“The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends. There, the soul often unites itself to the Word of God, bride to the groom, the earth to the sky, man to the divine. Statutes 4.1

Solitude is lived on three levels: Separation from the world, the cell and Interior solitude, or solitude of the heart.

Separation from the world is made possible by the cloister. They only leave the monastery for an occasional walk. They do no receive visits nor exercise any outside apostolate. They have neither radio nor television or telephone in the monastery.  It is the prior who receive news and tell the monks what they need to know.  As such the necessary conditions for internal silence develop, which then permit the soul to stay alert and attentive to the presence of God.

The Cell is a hermitage arranged in such a manner as to assure the Carthusian a solitude as complete as possible, all the while giving him the necessities of life. Each cell consists of a two story building surrounded by a garden, where the monk lives alone for most of the day, for the duration of all his life.

The cloister and cell only assure an external solitude. It is only the first step whose goal is to encourage interior solitude, or purity of heart: to keep one’s soul away from any and all things not of God or which do not lead to God. It is at this level that the Carthusian meets the sudden impulses of his thought and the changes of his feelings. As long as the monk discusses with his “self”, his sensibilities, his worthless thoughts, unreal desires, he is not centered on God. It is here that he experiences his weakness and the power of the Spirit which he learns bit by bit “ …the habit of the tranquil listening of the heart which allows God to enter by all path and access. (Statutes 4.2)

Welcome:  Liturgical celebration does not have any pastoral intent. This explains why those outside the Order are not admitted to participate at the offices or the Mass celebrated in the churches of their monasteries. Because of their call to solitude, visits are limited to the family members of the monk (2 days a year) and to those who feel called to Carthusian life, whom they call retreatants.

Solitary life A solitary communion

The grace of the Holy Spirit brings together those living in solitude to make a communion in love, in the image of the Church, one and extending to all ends of the earth. Statutes 21.1

Carthusian liturgy:  Characteristics

As soon as they arrived in the region of Chartreuse, St. Bruno and his companions put together a liturgy particularly adapted to their hermitical vocation and minimalist dimensions of their community. Over the centuries, our fathers have sought to preserve this same liturgy according to our solitary and contemplative life.  In comparison to the Roman rite, the Carthusian rite is characterized by its simplicity and sobriety in terms of external forms, which favors the union of soul with God, by visible and sensible expressions.  Certain elements of our liturgy: Long periods of silence, No musical instruments, Gregorian chant, helping internal conversation

In the Heart of the Church and of the World.

“Separated from all, we are united to all for it is in the name of all that we present ourselves to the living God.  Statutes 34.2

Praise:  The Carthusian do not choose solitude for its own sake, but because he saw in it an excellent means for him to attain a deeper union with God and all mankind. It is upon entering the recesses of his heart that the Carthusian solitaries become, in Christ, present to all men. He becomes a solitary to attain solidarity. Contemplatives are at the heart of the Church. They fulfil an essential function in the ecclesiastical community: the glorification of God. Carthusians withdraw to the desert first and foremost to worship God, to praise him, to admire him, to be seduced by him, to give themselves to him, in the name of all of mankind. It is in the name of all that they are mandated by the Church to be a permanent prayer.

Intercession:  Since the very beginning the Church recognized that monks tied to contemplation act as intercessors. Representing all of creation, on a daily basis, at all the liturgical offices and during the Eucharistic celebration, they pray for the living and the dead.

Witness

“Turned, by our profession, solely toward Him who is, we are witness in face of a world engrossed in the earthly realities that outside of Him there is no God. Our life shows that the good from heaven is already to be found on earth; it is a precursor of the resurrection and like an anticipation of a renewed world. Statutes 34.3

For the solitaries, being such a witness is not realized by speech, nor by personal contact. By his mere presence, the monk is a witness that God lives and can take over the hearts of men.

Penance

The ascetic life associated with the Carthusian as the work of Christ, for the salvation of man: “For our penance we take part in the redemptive role of Christ. He saved mankind, captive and burdened by sin, especially through his prayer to the Father, and by his death; by forcing ourselves to be associated with this most profound aspect of the redemption, and in spite of our apparent lack of outside activity, we exercise this apostolate in the most immediate way.  Statutes 34.4


I humbly ask for the reader to remember me in their prayers, that I might one day, if worthy find the key to the contemplative treasure chest, which eludes many.

I am your unworthy brother in Christ who assures your remembrance in his daily prayers and for those in the world who should know better. In Jesus and Mary.