An old man in a grey-brown habit opens the great and heavy wooden door. He bears the name in religion of “Gabriel”, his smile is both friendly and welcoming behind his thickset beard. At 72, Gabriel is –believe it or not –the youngster among the four remaining hermits who live within the hermitage of the Ermita de la Trinitat (Holy Trinity Hermitage) near the village of Valldemossa on the Balearic Island of Mallorca (in Catalan Mallorquí). The men are the last pf the monks who still follow the rigorous and austere way of life of the “desert fathers” who withdrew to the Egyptian desert circa AD 270 to devote their lives to asceticism and unrelenting prayer. It is unfortunate that when the last of them dies, an ancient Christian legacy will be permanently expunged upon this Island. (NB This article was originally written in 2016)
An ancient tradition which is about to end
“It’s a heart-wrenching shame,” says Dr. Felio Jose Bauza Martorell of University of the Balearic Islands, who wrote a book entitled “La Experience Eremitica en Mallorca” about this deeply religious tradition in his home village. The lawyer now lives in the capital Palma, but originally comes from Valldemossa, around 12.5 miles to the north, which towers picturesquely high above the Mediterranean Sea. “Throughout my youth, I always saw the hermits on Sundays and public holidays when they came to the village and attended mass at the village church,” he says. “With the book I wanted to leave a testimony about their lives for future generations.”
Until a few years ago there were six hermits in two different hermitages. After two of them died, the Betlem hermitage in Artà was closed in 2010. The four remaining monks between the ages of 72 and around 80 now live in Valldemossa. In the past, shortly after the Second World War, there were almost 60 hermitages on the Island of Mallorca, Bauzá stressed. Now this age-old tradition is finally coming to an end.
The Rule of Life of the “Congregation of the Hermits of St. Paul and St. Anthony” is extremely harsh and austere, infinitely far removed from the noisy world of computers, televisions, radios, telephones, smartphones and tablets. The order was founded in the 17th century by the Mallorcan Joan Mir Vallès in religion Fra. Joan de la Concepción de Maria Santíssima [Read More on Fra. Joan Mir Vallès here], whom had been a hermit since he was 15 years old. The Rule he wrote are based on the way of life of the first hermits of Christianity: Paul of Thebes and Anthony the Great – the first of Egyptian Christian “desert fathers”.
On a plain white wall you can read on a wooden plaque:
In practical life this means: getting up around four in the morning and then: praying, praying, praying. The hermits recite psalms and prayers for around 18 hours a day, sometimes quietly and inwardly, sometimes together in the chapel. They are only allowed to speak in the late evening. Even when they drive into the village in their old and battered yellow Renault R4, the monks pray the rosary (perhaps just to keep the vehicle moving).
The monks have to sew their monastic habits themselves.
“Your only goal is to live for God, not for others, not for yourself, only for God”, says Bauzá as our gaze wanders over the Mallorcan coastline (which is wondrous and reminds you of the wonders of God’s creation).
The view from the hermitage is breathtakingly beautiful. On the right is a small stone chapel, in front of it the cemetery, in the garden covered with cypress trees there is a statue of the founder of the order, Fra. Joan Mir Vallès. The monks grow most of their food themselves; citrus trees and vegetables grow in a small field. Meat is only available once a week, alcohol is absolutely forbidden. The monks also sew their Habits themselves. When they were younger, they even made their own sandals by hand. Additionally, they have always been reluctant to pose for photographs, there are only a handful of pictures, because as far as a hermit is concerned, they are dead to the world.
Why would a person decide to live such a secluded life far away from civilisation? “I didn’t choose this way of life, but God called me. And such callings are, as the Catholic Church often says, “a mystery,” says Fra. Gabriel, who sometimes breaks his vow of silence for visitors. He has been a hermit since he was 29 years old, “because the aspirants have to be old enough to ensure that they can withstand it at all,” says Bauzá. Gabriel had previously visited monasteries in the area and read books on the subject. His uncle had also lived as a hermit.
But those were different times. Today there are no more youngsters for the hermitage in Valldemossa. “In the last 20 years there have only been two or three interested parties, but this deeply religious life is far too hard for them to live,” explains Bauzá, who researched his book for two years and came closer to the hermits than anyone else ever has. Gabriel has another explanation: “Young people today are busy with far too many things, too much noise surrounds them, so they would not even be able to hear a calling from God.”
Don’t dwell upon the end…
Meanwhile the monks do not even try to think about an end to their way of life. “They don’t want to hear about it and don’t like being asked about it,” explains Bauzá. “Perhaps God will send someone to carry on the tradition,” is their credo.
The smell of fried vegetables wafts from the kitchen. Lunchtime. Low-hanging clouds move along the mountains, birds are chirping, the sea rushes below. This place exudes a strange spirituality, you can linger here. But still: isn’t it difficult to pray continuously day in and day out? “Not for me,” smiles Gabriel, as he closes the wooden door and disappears into the silence.