Some modern scholars have argued that passages in Ælred’s writings show that he may have been both physically and emotionally attracted to other men. Sometimes, he is even called the “gay abbot of Rievaulx”, he’s become an unofficial patron of LGBTQ Christians, especially within the US Episcopalian Church. As a consequence, a number of Polish Cistercians have reacted by flatly refusing to read any of Ælred’s works. Frankly, their blinkered attitude is their loss, we should pray that their eyes might be opened against ignorance and intolerance Continue reading St. Ælred of Rievaulx (1100-†1167) the Peacemaker
An example of this figure of a hermit friar and a farmer at the same time is that of Saint Fiacre, much venerated in France as protector of the Guild of gardeners, represented holding the spade and the gospel. An engraving by the brothers Johann and Raphael Sadelet, in the work of Maerten…. Continue reading Monastic Horticulture and Gardens
“My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand.”Saint Antony the Great
Such was Antony’s answer to the enquiry of the visiting Greek philosopher who wondered how such a learned man as he, got along in the desert without the benefit of books.
In that answer lies the keynote of much that seems to us inexplicable about the life of the hermits. The truest of their kind were Nature lovers. Their years were “bound each to each by natural piety.” Anchorites and hermits like Paul and Antony of the Thebaid were the Wordsworth’s and Austin’s of ancient times, who saw and understood the beauties of God in the cliffs and cascades of the wilderness and the opening buds of the garden, even though they were not, like modern poets of nature, able to impart with their pens to others the thoughts inspired by mountain, rock, and sea. There has always been a certain class of men and women who has found the essence of life’s enjoyment in solitary meditation, or who has seen the highest motive of life to be the recognising of God in the works of Nature.
Quite apart from Christianity the spirit of the hermit is natural to some. Even in the philosophies of Greece we find the Stoics and Cynics studiously keeping apart from their fellows lest sympathy and contact with others should be a source of contamination. The wizards and witches of the dark ages are probably lineal descendants of the recluses of some old-world religion of fairies and goblins and nature worship. No one can read Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” without at once being reminded, in Buddha’s history, of the hermits of Christianity, while the fakirs of modern India prove that the spirit of the hermit is not confined to times nor limited to certain areas.
Again and again has the world at its crises had its course marvellously altered by the unveiling of one of these veiled prophets—the coming forth into the light of common day from the darkness of retirement for the stemming of warfare, for the relief of those afflicted with pestilence, or for the righting of wrongs, of some hermit who, having learned to control his own will, is fittest to control the will of others.
Then the spirit of the hermit has appeared in a new light when giving vent to all the pent-up energies acquired by years of solitary retirement and meditation, as though he would atone for his seeming want of sympathy with his fellows by a superabundant supply in emergencies. Even so in Chrysostom’s early days the hermits came from their Syrian retirement and gained for Antioch pardon for the insult to the Statues. The Nitrian hermits came to nurse the plague-stricken Alexandrian’s, and Peter the Hermit fired the world with enthusiasm for the First Crusade.
There is something wildly fantastic and often sensationally romantic in the histories of hermits, yet beneath the sentiment and beneath the romance lies a reality — a stern reality of will’s endeavour to amputate from life the worst passions of nature, and often with them those which make nature loveable. There is a forgetfulness on the part of the hermit that the parable of the tares may be applied to the microcosmos of man’s own individual soul no less really than to the harvest field of God’s world.
Yet the hermit life was often in earlier times possibly an absolute necessity to many who entered upon it. Even in Anselm’s day the secular life, synonymous with that of sin, or the religious life of ascetic rule were the only alternatives. With all its flaws and its alienation from social life, the system of the hermit emphasised the grandest principle of the christian ethics —unselfishness and both in the Grecian and Roman communities made practical what S. Paul himself dared not even hint at— the abolition of slavery; for it taught that there was no disgrace in manual labour, and it taught this not merely in theory but in practice, when the cultured courtiers of the Byzantine or Roman palaces retired to sow and reap on the banks of the Nile, or nurse the sick in the pestilential slums of the great cities.
The origin of the name “hermit” is interesting. Its form in the writings of Jerome and in Latin deeds of the Middle Ages show its derivation at once from έρήμος—desert, for they adopted the word έρημιτης straight from the Greek Fathers. The hermit is essentially one who lives in the desert. Writers with a classical tinge kept the original form as late as Milton. In “Paradise Regained” we read :
“Thou Spirit, who ledst this glorious EremiteJohn Milton. Paradise Regain’d; Book 1, 1671.
Into the Desert, his Victorious Field
Though Spenser his predecessor in a pretty description of a hermitage and chapel spells the word “hermite.” [Cf. The Fairy Queen, Book. vi.,, Canto v.]
However, the Anglicised form had been used long before. In the original of Sir George Lancastre’s patent from Henry Earl of Northumberland in the 23rd year of Henry VIII, of the Conygarth with the Hermitage of Warkworth, it is repeatedly called interchangeably “Armitage” or “Harmytage.” In Dan Michel of Northgate’s curious old “Aȝenbite of Inwit—lit.: the again-biting of inner wit—or prick of conscience,” written in Kentish dialect of Middle English about AD 1340, we come upon the word “ermitage” in the quaint parable of how the priest in the temple of Mahomet was converted into a monk of Christ, though synchronously with this Sir John Mandeville uses the other form in his “Travels” “And at the deserts of Arabia, he went into a chapel where a hermit dwelt.” By and by, in the same chatty book, the word is prefixed with the aspirate when he tells why Mahomet cursed wine. [cf. “The travels of Sir John Mandeville: the version of the Cotton manuscript” ch. XV. pp. 94-95]
“And so it befell upon a night, that Mahomet was drunken of good wine, and he fell on sleep. And his men took Mahomet’s sword out of his sheath, whiles he slept, and therewith they slew this hermit, and put his sword all bloody in his sheath again. And at morrow, when he found the hermit dead, he was full sorry and wroth, and would have done his men to death. But they all, with one accord, said that he himself had slain him, when he was drunken, and shewed him his sword all bloody. And he trowed that they had said sooth. And then he cursed the wine and all those that drink it.”
In the history of Monasticism, hermits hold two distinct positions. In the first place hermits themselves gave rise originally to communities of monks. The example of one hermit drew others into the desert beside him, and so the Cenobitic monastery, became naturally evolved. In the second place, under the evolved monastic system, some continually sighed for stricter rules and more solitary meditation, and so, withdrawing from the common life of the brotherhood, took up their abode in some cell, perhaps near to the monastery. Such was the case with St. Cuthbert, who spent over 10 years living as a hermit on Inner Farne, withdrawing from the monastery of Lindisfarne, took up his abode in the cell of Farne Island.
Great master-minds, like St. Martin of Tours, have led the van by first being hermits themselves, then founding Cenobitic monasteries have subsequently retired to some more secluded spot among the mountains, or on some almost inaccessible ocean rock. Hence it is often difficult in investigating the origin of a hermitage near unto an abbey, to decide whether the cell was established first, and then led to the formation of the neighbouring abbey, as the Cell of Godric led to the founding of Finchale, near Durham, or whether an abbey was founded first, and then cells branched off from it, for the retirement of those, who, like St. Cuthbert, wished for further seclusion, or for the missionary extension of religion in dark places. Such possibly was the cell formed at Westoe, as a branch from Jarrow, and to the self-same status probably was Jarrow itself degraded afterwards, when it became simply a subordinate cell dependent upon the Abbey of Durham.
In Mediaeval England hermits seem often to have played the important part of officiating minister in places far from Abbey churches.
Indeed for the matter of that, parish priests in lonely spots have in much later times really led hermit lives.
In the latter part of the twelfth century, in the time of Hugh de Balliol, Lord of Bywell, Barnard Castle and Gainford, a certain hermit called Walter de Bolebec II gave to the monastery of Kelso his hermitage and church of St. Mary’s, in the waste and forest south of Hexham, probably at Slaley. From which we should judge that he had been the ministering spirit of the foresters, herdsmen, and moss-troopers of that region, until he founded for the Premonstratensian canons Blanchland Abbey of St Mary the Virgin, in 1165.
Generally with the hermit’s cell was a little chapel or oratory in which he could perform his own devotions, and to which he might invite the neighbouring cottagers to join him. Such seems to have been the object of the hermitage built at the end of the bridge at Stockport, in Cheshire, with its oratory of the fourteenth century.
To traverse the history of Christian hermits we must go to Eastern countries, ever the natural home of ascetism and mysticism, which are always tinged with fanaticism there, whether found in Jewish Essene or later Montanist.
The first recorded Christian hermit who prominently practised seclusion from his fellows was Paul of the Thebaid, whose life and miracles are so enthusiastically narrated by St. Jerome, the greatest advocate and promoter of asceticism, both for men and women, that the world has ever known.
Partly contemporary with Paul is Antony, whose life, written by St. Athanasius, reads more like a romance of the Arabian nights, with the wondrous tales of demonology and animal subjection to the hermit’s will. Antony, in his ruined castle by the Red Sea, thought himself the first and best of hermits when he reached the age of ninety, but it was revealed to him that there was beyond him, and better than he, a hermit whom he must visit. After marvellous adventures with Hippocentaurs, fauns, and satyrs, he arrived at the cave of Paul, whom he found to be 113 years old. An inseparable friendship sprang up between these two heroes of fasting and vigil, which lasted until Antony looked upon the form of the dead Paul still kneeling in prayer in his little oratory with stiffened hands uplifted to the skies, finding him even as the servants of David Livingstone (a man of modern times, but tinged with much of the good old hermit spirit which caused him to cut himself off from the luxuries of home life, that he might promote the crusade of Christianity in the desert wilds of South Africa) found their master.
The example of these hero hermits was quickly followed by numbers, until the Thebaid of Egypt and the Nitrian Desert were thickly populated with self-abnegating martyrs severing themselves from human love and human hope, as well as human sin.
The system spread rapidly into Syria, ripe ever for a revival of the Essene School, insomuch that soon it was difficult to get candidates for ordination, for the secluded life of meditation was held in higher esteem than the active missionary life of priesthood. The pages of “De Sacerdotio” show how difficult it was to uproot this doctrine even from the mind of St. Chrysostom, himself a hermit forcibly dragged to ordination and an active life.
But the growing error of the unpardonable nature of sin after baptism, caused yet more stringent application of ascetic exercises to prevent the yielding to passion, and developed that strange wild phase seen in the pillar saints, whose characteristic it was to raise themselves upon some solitary pillar many cubits high, and perhaps only three feet in diameter, and there undergo all changes of weather and all dreadful horrors, until the gruesome details make one sick to read them, and wonder that human will could so overmaster the feelings as to endure such torments voluntarily. But if the feelings were blunted and overmastered, so was the intellect; for the illusions, the visions, and even the miracles of these and other hermits are but the “frothy working of a mind diseased.”
Simeon Stylites was the pioneer of these pillar saints, and received his surname from this fact. The little monologue by Lord Tennyson, called after him, gives anyone who can read between the lines a singularly vivid picture of the inner working of his soul, and the motives that led to this strange life. Simeon was imitated by very many, and the fame of his saintliness and pseudo-miracles caused a perfect forest of pillars to begin to rise throughout Syria, some of the occupants of which even outsimeoned Simeon in the tenacity of their endurance.
The spirit of the hermit passed to the Latin world, but here it received a modulation due partly to the general legal constitution of the Latin world, partly to the Augustinian Theology of the age, and the solitary hermit founded the Cenobitic monastery, with its rules and order without the wild impetuous fanaticism and mysticism that marked the Eastern monk.
The monks of the West, in the spirit of the West, tended to the study of men and human nature, and the works of man in literature and art. Yet some there are imbued with a love of Nature in her wildness, who can meditate on God and His works better in solitude, and so we find still the hermit leaving his monastic cell, and taking up his abode in mountain cave, or on some rocky islet even in the West.
Again as in the East the Eremitic system is the check to serfdom; side by side with the overweening Norman baron is the baronial abbot laying aside his robes of office, and passing out to the hermit life, tilling the ground, digging out his cell, and showing it is no disgrace to work, but a glory.
In England, we more frequently find instances of the Anchorite, who has a little chamber in connection with some abbey or church, wherein he dwells. Sometimes he immures himself so that he cannot get out, and is fed through some hole in his enclosure.
The picture we give of “Hermits and Hermitages” is from a MS Book of Hours, executed for Richard H. (British Museum, Cotton Domitian, A. xvii., folio 4 v.). “The artist” says the Rev. Edward L. Cutts, “probably intended to represent the old hermits of the Egyptian desert. Piers Ploughman’s —
“Holy eremites That lived wild in woods With bears and lions;”
but after the custom of mediaeval art, he has introduced the scenery, costume, and architecture of his own time. Erase the bears which stand for the whole tribe of outlandish beasts, and we have a very pretty bit of English Mountain scenery. The stags are characteristic enough of the scenery of mediaeval England. The hermitage on the right seems to be of the ruder sort, made in part of wattled work. On the left we have the more usual hermitage of stone, with the little chapel bell, in the bell-cot on the gable. The venerable old hermit, coming out of the doorway, is a charming illustration of the typical hermit, with his long beard, and his form bowed by age, leaning with one hand on his cross-staff, and carrying his rosary in the other.”
The hermitage or reclusorium at Hambledon, Hants., is connected with a large thirteenth century church. Built in the angle between the tower and the West end of the South aisle, its date is probably of the fourteenth century. It consisted of two large rooms, one above the other. The upper one, of which the floor is now removed, shows a drain pipe still remaining through the wall to the exterior, and this room probably the recluse would use as his ordinary dwelling-room and kitchen. There was a door in the upper room leading by a gallery through the South aisle to the parvise of the adjacent porch, so that our friend had the use of three good-sized rooms. The original wooden door in the wall of the parvise still remains. Nothing has been ascertained as to the person for whom this hospitium was erected. He is spoken of in some old documents at Winchester as the hermit at Hambledon, but the size of the rooms points to some different manner of life to that usually followed by a recluse. He may have been the sacristan, or conductor of the church music, or in some other way devoted his time and talents to the service of the church. There is no outer door, but access was obtained from the church of which the building is now used as the vestry.
Another anchorage at Walpole St. Andrews, Norfolk, is a much smaller edifice, and seems meant as a convenient receptacle for a devotee to immure himself therein alive. This cell of a holy man was probably much resorted to by superstitious dwellers in marshland.
Against the North wall of the church of Ss. Mary and Cuthbert, at Chester-le-Street, was formerly an anchorage of four rooms. In later times this was used as the vicarage.
Similar instances are found at Durham Cathedral. Over the great north doorway, with its dragon-head knocker, was a little room, wherein stayed two monks, ever ready to go down and open the door for the refugee when he rang the knocker of sanctuary. Again between the North aisle of the choir and the Nine Altars was a grand porch called the Anchorage. “Here dwelt an anchorite, whereunto the priors very much resorted, both for the excellency of the place, as also to hear mass, standing so conveniently unto the high altar, and withal so near a neighbour to the shrine of St. Cuthbert.”
There was a regular service in the Salisbury Manual ( Cf. Baxter Philip. Sarum use: the development of a medieval code of liturgy and customs) for the walling in of anchorites.
Even women thus immured themselves, like those three nuns at Kingston Tarrant, in Dorset, for whom the thirteenth century “Ancren Riwle” —a treatise on the rules and duties of monastic life— was written.
Hagioscopes* in the North or south side of the chancel from little chambers behind in so many churches testify to the frequency of these immured anchorites. This, indeed, was the common form of hermit in the South and midland counties, and to this kind the darker aspects of the ascetic hermit, unhealthy Christianity, weakened intellect, and demoralised humanity, essentially belong. [*Hagioscopes or squint is an architectural term denoting a small splayed opening or tunnel at seated eye-level, through an internal masonry dividing wall of a church in an oblique direction (south-east or north-east), giving worshippers a view of the altar and therefore of the elevation of the host.]
The Fen district in its ancient state, provided scope for hermits of the type of Antony and Paul. There in the rich, wild, green pasturage, surrounded by marshes covered with water-lilies, and swarming with pike and perch, where the kingfishers dart and the wild ducks plunge, Anglo-Saxon hermit St. Guthlac of Crowland made his hermit home in the seventh century; Guthlac had a career that rose from aristocratic warrior to monastic visionary and eventually patron saint of Crowland Abbey.
He had been a warrior, but he had grown tired of slaying and sinning, and so he left his ancestral and princely home for the little green mound where he made his cell, and whereon, after fifteen years of self-abnegation, of starvation, ague, and fever had sent him to his long home, there arose the magnificent Abbey of Crowland. Over another of these fen heroes, St. Botwulf [or Botolph]of Thorney, arose another shrine, and round it gathered the town which still bears his name, Botolphston —from “Botolph’s stone” or “Botolph’s town” the market town of Boston in Lincolnshire.
But it is the mountainous North, and especially the romantic crags and dells of the borderland, that in England proved the best ground for the nature-loving hermit in his purest and holiest form. All over the North country there are dotted places which still go by the name of Armitage or Hermitage, showing plainly the nature of the quondam inhabitant. Similarly in Scotland and Ireland the prefix kil, kel, or cul, shows at once the place where once upon a time there was no habitation but the “cell” of some hermit, or a group of “cells” of the ancient British form of monastery anterior to the introduction of the Benedictine rule.
There is no history that is truer than that gained from place-names.
Here is the hermitage at St. John’s Lee, near Hexham, a gentleman’s residence, with splendid gardens, and some of the finest beeches in England, but its name shows that this was the spot whither St. John of Beverley used to retire for weeks of meditation and devotion from the busy life of the Hexham Abbey in the seventh century. From some similar cause no doubt comes the name of the Hermitage, the residence of Sir Lindsay Wood, at Chester-le-Street.
From a hermitage in Eskdale, near Whitby, Godric of Finchale (c. 1070 – †21 May 1170), a native of Walpole in Norfolk, came to Durham, during the bishopric of the Norman Ranulf Flambard (1099-†1128). Acting as verger at St. Giles’, and listening to the lessons of the children at the school of St. Mary-le-Bow, he learnt the psalter by heart, and once more sought retirement in a cell he constructed for himself on the North bank of the Wear, near the spot where the handsome ruins of Finchale now stand.
His biography “Life of St. Goderic” by Reginald of Durham, dedicated to Hugh Pudsey, reminds us very much in its extravagant demonology and miracle-working, of the lives of Paul and Antony. Again we hear of the extreme steps taken for self-discipline, but a new feature is added; night after night, even in the cold winter months, St. Godric will stand up to his neck in the icy Wear all the night through whilst reciting the Psalms, just as St. Dryhthelm of Melrose (St. Mary’s Abbey) had done in the River Tweed in Bede’s day, and as Charles Reade makes his hero do in that finest of all historical novels “The Cloister and the Hearth.”
North of Durham and Finchale, to the East of Ravensworth on the edge of Gateshead Fell, we come to the vill of Ayton Bank, respecting which there is a very interesting document in existence: the following grant of an acre of land near the brook to the hermit of Eighton, points out the site of the ancient vill:
“Heremitarium de Eighton.
“Johannes Dei gra. Dunelm. Episcopus omnibus ad quos presentes literæ pervenerint salutem. Sciatis quod de gratia nostra speciali concessimus Roberto Lamb, Hereuntæ, unam acram vasti nostri ad finem borealem villæ de Eighton juxta altam viam ducentem versus Gatesheved vidt ex parte occidentali dictæ viæ prope rivulum descendentem de fonte vocato Scotteswell pro quadam Capella et Heremitagio per ipsum ibidem in honore S. Trinitatis edificandis, habend. et tenend. eidem Roberto ad terminum vitæ suæ de elemosina nostra libere et quiete ab omni servitio seculari ad serviendum Deo ibidem et orando pro nobis et pro predecessoribus ac successoribus nostris. In cujus, &c. Dat. apud Dunelm. 20 die Maii A° Pont. sexto. Rot. Fordham, A° 6, 1387.”The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward. Chapelry of Lamesley pp. 207-218. British History online.
The life of St. Cuthbert shows him a hermit at Dull, [Perth and Kinross] in Scotland, in his early days, and again in his declining years at Inner Farne on the rocky Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, where the seabirds learn to love him. The miracles alleged about him and other hermits in respect to wild animals, are not hard to understand when we consider the wonderful scope they had for the practical study of Natural history, and how marvellous their knowledge would appear to the untutored visitors. But for ages the miracle-working of St. Cuthbert, and of the spirit of St. Cuthbert, was believed in by the superstitious northerners of mediaeval times, and had they not proof for ocular demonstration? When the storm subsided, throughout which the ringing of St. Cuthbert’s hammer had been heard, and they went upon his island, did they not pick up the beads which he had wrought? We know them to be simply the entrochi of Geology, but they did not, and so they called them Cuthbert’s beads, just as they called the ammonites of Yorkshire, Hilda’s petrified serpents.
Away in the bosom of the Cumbrian hills, we find St. Herbert’s Isle, in the Lake of Derwentwater, where the ruins of the little chapel still stands, built over the shrine of St. Herbert of Derwentwater, the intimate friend of St. Cuthbert. On that island St. Herbert spent his hermit life, visited occasionally by his friends (perhaps from Crosthwaite, where St. Kentigern [known as St. Mungo] had established his Cumbrian mission), who, starting from the little pine-clothed promontory on the eastern side of the lake, bequeathed to it the name of the “Friars’ Crag.” There in the scene so loved by Wordsworth, St. Herbert closed his life on the self-same day as his friend St. Cuthbert, on his rocky isle. Thus was their prayer strangely answered.
St. Cuthbert is the archetypal hermit of the sea. Others besides him have found in the sad sound of its waves and the ever-changing lights upon its surface, groundwork for passive contemplation and perpetual prayer. St. Brendan [the Navigator] found it on the bosom of the ocean, seeking the land of rest, the “Promised Land.” St. Regulus [Bishop of Patras] found it on the shores of Fife at the spot called Kilrymont, a Pictish settlement when he landed with the relics of Scotland’s patron saint St. Andrew the Apostle, and established his hermitage on the same spot where, in later years, grew the city of St. Andrews.
Coquet Isle, off Warkworth Harbour, was itself a cell of retirement, belonging to the Benedictine monks of Tynemouth.
But the mention of Warkworth brings us to the most entrancingly romantic of all the hermit stories, the pathetic tale so graphically told by Bishop Percy, in the style of the old Northumbrian Ballads.
Nowhere in the world is there a more interesting anchorage, both for its architectural design and its origin, than Warkworth Hermitage.
There lived at Bothal Castle, about the time of Edward III, a young chieftain of the name of Sir Bertram [of Bothal], whose love for Isabella heiress of the house of Widdrington was reciprocated, and moreover was approved of by the lady’s parents. But before consenting to marriage she required her suitor to prove his valour, and sent him a helmet for use against Scotland to attack Earl Douglas. In a subsequent border raid, Sir Bertram was sorely wounded, and was carried to Wark Castle by the Tweed, to be healed. His promised bride, hurrying across the Cheviot moorlands to nurse him was captured by a Scottish nobleman who had been an unsuccessful suitor for her hand, and her attendants were killed. A week later, Sir Bertram recovering, in anxiety at no tidings reaching him from the lady, goes to her home and finds that she had set out for Wark. No trace of her whereabouts being discovered, he comes to the conclusion that some mosstroopers have carried her off. Consequently, he and his brother set out in different directions under disguise to seek her. By chance, unknown to each other, they discover her prison about the same time. The brother in highland disguise is just carrying her off to safety at night when Sir Bertram in minstrel garb comes upon them and slays his brother, and the lady, discovering the mistake too late, throws herself between them and is herself slain. Henceforward the luckless victim of these sad circumstances, having been with difficulty restrained from committing suicide in his frenzy, gave himself up to the hermit life of fasting and prayer.
His friend, Earl Percy, gave to him the sequestered spot on the North bank of the Coquet, near Warkworth, where he spent his fifty remaining years in excavating in the solid freestone rock a beautiful little Gothic chapel, which still remains, in architecture of the style of Edward III’s time.
The little grotto contains three apartments, which have been named the chapel, the sacristy, and the antechapel. Outside of these by mason-work the hermit’s —or probably his successors’— dwelling-room and bed-room were built.
The chapel is still entire; the other apartments have been partly broken by the fall of rock.
The chapel is about eighteen feet long, with a width and height of about seven-and-a-half feet. At the East end, reached by two steps, is a handsome stone altar, having the upper plane edged with moulding. In the centre of the wall behind is a niche for a crucifix, with the remains of a glory. On one side of the altar is a beautiful Gothic window, which admitted light to the sacristy. On the opposite side is a cenotaph bearing the recumbent effigy of a lady. Her feet rest upon the figure of a dog, as the symbol of fidelity. Beneath is the figure of a bull’s head, the crest of the lady’s family. Kneeling at the foot of the tomb, with his head resting on his right hand, is the figure of the hermit. A door in the chapel led to an inner apartment containing an altar like that in the chapel, and a recess in the wall for the reception of a bed, whereon one of moderate size might sleep. This then was the hermit’s own sleeping apartment. Above the entrance to it is a shield, cut in the stone, and sculptured thereon are the cross, the crown, and the spear, as emblems of the Passion.
Leaving the chapel, we turn and look at the inscription, now illegible, but which once ran: — “Fuerunt mihi lacrimae meae panes die ac nocte,” and it seems like the motto not of this hermit alone but of every genuine hermit throughout Christendom; “My tears have been my meat day and night.”
Outside we find the hermit’s well, and a rock-hewn flight of steps to the left of the grotto, leading to the summit of the cliff, where he had his little garden, and whence he might gaze across the Vale of Coquet. This garden is now covered thick with oaks.
A series of hermits followed him in line, until the Reformation swept away hermitages and anchorages along with the monasteries.
The last hermit at Warkworth seems to have been Sir George Lancastre, to whom was granted by the Earl of Northumberland a patent of twenty marks a year and other privileges in consideration of his daily prayers for the Earl and his ancestors in 1532. This document is still extant.
At Knaresborough, Yorkshire, still remains an interesting example of a hermitage. It is known as St. Robert’s Chapel, and is hewn out of the rock, at the bottom of a cliff. We give pictures of the exterior and interior of the chapel. The chapel appears to have also been the hermit’s living-room. Our illustrations are from John Carter’s “The ancient architecture of England, including the orders during the British, Roman, Saxon, and Norman eras…” (1887).
The Reformation swept away almost all vestiges of the technical religious hermit from England, but it cannot kill the spirit of the hermit. Subsequently we find it exhibiting itself in very eccentric forms in our country.
In 1696 died John Bigg, the hermit of Denton. Formerly clerk to the regicide Judge Mayne, at the Restoration he retired to a cave, and lived on charity, though he never asked for anything but leather, which he kept patching on his already overladen shoes. These remarkable shoes were preserved, one in the Ashmolean Museum, and the other at Denton Hall.
In 1863 there was living near Ashby-de-la-Zouch an eccentric character who named himself “The old Hermit of Newton Burgoland.” His mania was political rather than religious. His own motto was “True hermits throughout every age have been the firm abettors of freedom,” and the actions of his life were all intended to exhibit some political, social, or religious symbolism. The garments which he wore, and the plots in which his garden were laid out, all symbolised some quaint idea. Thus one hat of helmet shape represented the idea ” Fight for the birthright of conscience, love, life, property, and national independence.” Another of his twenty symbolic hats shaped like a beehive represented the thought “The toils of industry are sweet; a wise people live at peace.” To such a weak aimless end had the hermit life decayed.
We give an illustration of the funeral of a hermit, which is one of a group in a fine picture of “St. Jerome,” by Florentine Quattrocento artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439—†1507), in the National Gallery. “It represents,” says the Reverend Edward L. Cutts, in his “Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages,” “a number of hermits mourning over one of their brethren, while a priest, in the robes proper to his office, stands at the head of the bier and says prayers, and his deacon stands at the foot holding a processional cross. The contrast between the robes of the priest and those of the hermits is lost in the woodcut; in the original the priest’s cope and amice are coloured red, while those of the hermits are tinted with light brown.” It will be observed that he is to be interred without a coffin, which was customary amongst members of religious orders in bygone times.
Yet, since nothing dies, but only all things change, all that was great and good in the hermit spirit has but passed on into other forms, for still we find poets of nature and self-denying souls, and even the hermit form itself may phoenix-like arise again out of the ashes of the frivolity and secularism of the age as an overstrained reaction from the past, as it did of old. Who can tell?
It will not seem more strange to us than it did to the calm-souled fellow-christians of Paul and Antony, or the Roman contemporaries of Jerome and Eustochium.Continue reading “Hermits and Hermit Cells”
But I understand that such assurances give very little relief indeed to a soul that is struggling within one of these spiritual storms. This is precisely the attributes that makes such trials so formidable and arduous: there is absolutely no… Continue reading School of Silence: Prepare
Jesus Christ is thus a Person, Who is the subject of His acts and is responsible; Whose acts are human or Divine according as they are done by His human or Divine Nature; but they are His acts, the acts of a Divine Person. It is He who acts. Pointing to the Child in the crib at Bethlehem or to the Man dying on the cross at Calvary, we can and must say that Continue reading Jesus Christ: Who is He Really?
In recent years some odd theories have been put forward which, in order to highlight the noteworthiness of an active turning to the world and a ‘secular Christianity,’ have deemed it vital to simultaneously bring monastic solitude into disfavour. The ‘contemplative’ life of a religious is found to be of ‘Greek origins.’ Striving with temptation in the wilderness today, is seen as a peculiar and antiquated artefact of a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church which was called gnosticism, or perhaps some other heretical group. Solitude is revealed as essentially incompatible to the Christian message and life which are generally communal. Simply put, in this context the whole monastic ideal suddenly becomes theologically questionable.
So how seriously should these idiosyncratic theories be taken? Should they influence a religious to embrace an entirely defensive and apologetic standpoint toward our monastic vocation? Or do we have to whilst remaining true to our vocations as hermits, monks and nuns, find ways of living unmonastically in order to defuse and negate this criticism? Do we need to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that we, hermits, monks and nuns are all intrinsically ‘secular’ too and that our monastic style of behaviour —or conversatio morum— is in actual fact our facing in the direction of the world and not in fact, away from it?
We are not claiming to resolve this intricate question of the religious’ relation to the modern world. Before that question can even be tackled, the religious must have a concrete perception of what they themselves are supposed to be. If they set about, by compromising themselves they will not be able to avoid ambiguity and compromise in considering his relationship to the world.
Monastic theology is not merely a search for a few specious texts in Scripture and the Fathers which will excuse or justify the monastic vocation. It is rather a study and meditation of revealed truth which enables the religious to understand how they, in a most special way, can respond to the call to follow Christ in the wilderness.
Two studies by Protestant theologians, show that the theme of a call into the wilderness, a vocation to recover the paradisiacal life after suffering temptation with Christ in desert solitude, is but a variant of the fundamental themes of all Biblical theology: the pascha Christi, the call of the People of God out of Egypt, through the Red Sea into the Desert and to the Promised Land; the theme of the Cross and Resurrection; dying to sin and rising in Christ; the theme of the old and new man; the theme of the fallen world and the new creation. Not only is a Christian withdrawal to a ‘desert solitude’ excusable, licit and even praiseworthy, but the whole theology of the second Gospel is built upon the theme of Christ in the desert.
The study by Dr Ulrich Mauser is limited to the biblical use of the desert theme, especially in the gospel of St. Mark. Dr George Williams in his survey of biblical, patristic, medieval and radical Protestant thought, gives us a remarkably interesting picture of a ‘Paradise-Wilderness’ concept running through the entire history of Christian spirituality and playing a most important part not only within monasticism but also in Protestantism and particularly in the universities and seminaries founded by the Protestants in the ‘wilderness’ of the North and South Americas. Both these books are of significant importance to men and women religious, and we will attempt to give a brief survey of their contents here, evaluating their consequences for a monastic theology relevant to our own needs.
The Eremos, the desert wilderness ‘where evil and curse prevail,’ where nothing grows, where the very existence of man is constantly threatened, is also the place specially chosen by God to manifest Himself in His ‘mighty acts’ of mercy and salvation. Obedience to a divine call brings into this dreadful wilderness those whom God has chosen to form as His own people. The convocation of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai is the story of God leading men on what appears to be a ‘march into the open gates of death’ (Mauser). God places Israel in a seemingly impossible situation where, however, He reveals His name to His chosen, and thus places them directly in communication with Him as a source of unfailing help. On the basis of this free relationship rests the covenant of God with His people.
Failure to trust Yahweh in the wilderness is not simply an act of weakness: it is disobedience and idolatry which, substituting the golden calf for the ineffable name, seek to shorten the time of suffering by resort to human expedients glossed over with religious excuses. Only a free act of grace can restore the violated covenant by reawakening in the people a true sense of the meaning of their desert vocation. They must recover their understanding that the desert calling implies a complete and continual dependence on God alone. For Israel, the desert life was a life of utter dependence on a continued act of grace which implied also a recognition of man’s own propensity to treachery and to sin. We know how the prophets urged Israel under her Kings and at the time of the Babylonian exile, to remember the desert time of espousals and to anticipate a new Exodus which would restore the authentic relationship of bridal love between Israel and her God in a ‘renewed wilderness time’. We know that this theme was taken over in the Pauline writings.
Dr Ulrich Mauser shows that this is the message of John the Baptist at the opening of the second Gospel. The fact that the Baptist preaches ‘in the wilderness’ is of theological significance in Mark, for whom ‘the wilderness is a theme full of theological implications and not primarily a locality.’ John is in fact announcing what the prophets announced before him: One who is to come from God will appear in the wilderness and initiate the final work of salvation. Israel must go out to meet this one in the wilderness in an act of sincere repentance which acknowledges her whole history as one of disobedience and infidelity. The Baptism of John is a sign of recognition that God’s people are under judgement. Even Christ is baptised, thus showing His willingness to ‘endure God’s judgement’ and indeed to die for the sins of the people. Immediately after this, Jesus goes out to be tempted in the desert, for ‘only Jesus fully realised what it meant to go out into the wilderness: it meant the determination to live under the judgement of God.’ His going out into the desert is then the necessary outcome of His baptism.
For all others, baptism is simply a gesture of temporary repentance. They return to the cities. But Jesus goes on into the wilderness as the sign that His baptism is fully serious, and that He is ‘the only true penitent whose return to the desert is (not merely a token gesture) but unfeigned’. One might argue that Christ’s stay in the desert is itself only a temporary retreat, a pause for thought and recollection in preparation for his active mission. Not at all; ‘The forty days,’ says Dr Mauser, are not ‘a period passed forever once Christ starts his public ministry,’ but as in the case of Moses and Elias, the desert retreat ‘sounds the keynote of his whole mission.’
Mauser then traces the development of the wilderness theme throughout the whole Gospel of Mark. ‘Mountain’ and ‘Sea’ are variants of the ‘wilderness’ in Mark. Invariably all stories of Jesus, in Mark, which have an ‘epiphany character’ take place in the ‘wilderness’, that is to say ‘on the mountain’ or by or on the sea. The underlying concept of Mark is in fact the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, the overcoming of the powers of evil in the world by the struggle in the desert, the agony in the garden and death on Calvary. Hence the whole Gospel of Mark is, for Dr Mauser, a development of the struggle of Jesus and Satan in the desert. To live in this state of struggle with the adversary of God, and to sustain this conflict in direct and complete dependence on God Himself, is the ‘wilderness life’. Even if one lives this confrontation far from the actual desert, one is in fact living ‘in the wilderness’ and ‘with Christ in the desert’. We see here the basic idea of all monastic theology firmly rooted in the second Gospel.
What of ‘contemplation’? The Gospels do not use the expression ‘contemplative life,’ but the idea is expressed in other language. Christ is transfigured on the mountain, i.e., in the wilderness. The cloud, which would later have such fruitful destiny in Christian mystical literature, is since Exodus a permanent feature of the desert tradition: the ‘visible form of the governing, guiding yet hidden form of Yahweh’s presence’. The desert life is not only darkness and battle, it is also light and rest in the Lord who is our only help. ‘The epiphany of the glory of God is an indispensable element in the desert tradition.’ In fact, says Dr Mauser, the transfiguration is the sign of the Father’s approval of the obedience of Jesus in His desert vocation, His fidelity to a life of persistence in the desert.’
This persistence will of course lead finally to death, because the mountain of Calvary is the culmination of the desert vocation. ‘Jesus’s determination to persist in the desert … finds its conclusion in His decision to suffer and to die.’ Why? Because the very secret of life itself is that by renunciation one overcomes death and suffering (Mark 8:35) and enters upon life everlasting. The disciples of Christ who are called in a very real sense to follow Him ‘in the wilderness’ do not really understand the meaning of their calling. They are to a certain extent blind to the teaching of their master and to the significance of His life. The real cause of this blindness is their incapacity to surrender totally to their own desert vocation. ‘The unwillingness to endure tribulation and persecution, the care for security in the world, in one word the unwillingness to suffer — prevent the disciples from seeing and accepting all the implications of Christ’s teaching in their own lives.’
Even the apostolic mission of the followers of Jesus is marked with the sign of the wilderness. They are, in fact, called ‘on the Mountain’ and this, for Dr Mauser, is the ‘indication of (the) basic condition of their mission’. When they are sent out to preach in Mark 6.8 ff, the instructions given them are similar to those given to Israel at the beginning of the desert journey. In one word: the disciples of Christ are to be kept alive by nourishment from God, and they must not waste time and energy caring for themselves. The miraculous feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness in Mark 6 represents at once the convocation of the new Israel in the desert and the messianic and eschatological rest of God’s people with their King in the desert which has become His Kingdom and where He feeds them with His might in the new manna, the eucharist.
From this brief resumé we can see at once that Dr Mauser has given us a monastic reading of Mark’s Gospel which is more thorough and more solid than almost anything we have in monastic literature since the Fathers. As monks we owe him thanks for a treatise in biblical theology which sums up the whole meaning of our own vocation to follow Christ in the wilderness, in temptation, to the cross, strengthened by His epiphany in the ‘cloud’ of contemplation, nourished by his eucharist and by the hope of the ‘eschatological rest’ with Him in the paradise of the transformed and flowering desert which is His Kingdom.
The intricate relationship between the themes of desert and paradise is developed in a fascinating manner by Dr George Williams. The Church of the martyrs believed that the desert had become the arena, the sandy place where they fought the beasts and overcame the adversary of God in their agonia. Then the monks went out into the actual desert as Christ had done and their monastic struggle with temptation became a ‘martyrdom’ in witness to the faith, in obedience to Christ, in direct dependence on God for the grace without which one could not resist. This struggle was rewarded and the Church of martyrs and monks became also a ‘provisional paradise’ in anticipation of the eternal Kingdom.
These themes are quite familiar to anyone who has read the monastic Fathers. But what is particularly interesting about Dr Williams’ book is the way in which he traces the development of the wilderness-paradise theme through the medieval universities (with their traditional autonomy from outside control) to Protestant sectarians who sought refuge in the ‘desert’ and ‘paradise’ of the New World, and who there built seminaries and colleges as ‘gardens in the wilderness’. Dr Williams sums up his thesis in these words: ‘Many major and minor movements in Christian history have been in substantial degree the history of the interpenetrations of the biblical and post-biblical meanings of the wilderness and paradise in the experience of God’s ongoing Israel’.
Besides exploring the wilderness-paradise theme in the Bible, especially in the prophetic writings, Dr Williams gives special attention to Qumran and to Christian monasticism. Qumran was an ‘apocalyptic community that imitated the ancient sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai’, seeking to prepare the way for a priestly and a royal Messiah (two Messiahs in fact) by a paradisic covenant and communal life. The aim of Qumran is summed up in a phrase that has most fruitful implications for monastic theology: ‘the purity of paradise truth recovered within the fellowship of a disciplined wilderness encampment sustained by the Spirit’. Williams traces the themes of desert and paradise through Christian monasticism, shows the gradual interiorisation of this theme in the mystical literature of the Middle Ages, especially of the Victorines. He demonstrates that it persisted in the spirituality of the Mendicants and in the Universities, and quotes many texts from radical Protestantism which have the authentic ring of ancient monasticism, except that they apply to sectarian communities rather than to conventual families living under monastic vows.
These texts incidentally offer much food for thought to anyone interested in ecumenical dialogue with Protestant visitors to our American monasteries. They show how completely a theme which is fundamental to monastic theology was taken over in the theology of radical Protestantism in the seventeenth century and hence entered into the formation of the Christian ideal of North American culture that grew up out of the Puritan colonies of New England. These words of John Eliot, a seventeenth-century New England Puritan, might equally well have come from one of the Trappist founders of the Abbey of Gethsemane: ‘When the enjoyment of Christ in his pure Ordinances is better to the soul than all worldly comforts, then these things (the hardships of the wilderness) are but light afflictions.’ Roger Williams is said to have practically ‘made an incantation of the word wilderness.’ Kentucky, we know, is still haunted by the thought of that ‘wilderness road’ through the Appalachian Mountains, over which the settlers came from Maryland and Virginia, including those Catholics who gathered around Bardstown where the first Cathedral west of the Alleghenies was dedicated in 1816. Bishop Flaget of Bardstown invited the first monks to North America.
In conclusion, one very important aspect of Dr Williams’ book must not be passed over in silence. He is acutely aware, as too few Americans still are, of the criminal wastefulness with which commercial interests in the last two centuries have ravaged and despoiled the ‘paradise-wilderness’ of the North American mountains, forests and plains. The struggle to protect the natural beauties and resources of this country has not ended, and it is by no means to be regarded as an eccentricity of sentimental souls, bird watchers and flower gardeners. The disastrous storms of the thirties in the south-western dust bowl finally brought home more or less to everyone that conservation of soil and natural resources was an absolute necessity. Yet this does not prevent wastefulness, stupidity, greed and sheer destructive carelessness from going on today. So Dr Williams says, in words that monks above all should be ready to understand and appreciate: ‘Ours is the age of the bulldozer as much as it is the age of the atomic bomb. For good or ill, we need no longer conform to the contours of the earth. The only wilderness that will be left is what we determine shall remain untouched and that other wilderness in the heart of man that only God can touch.’ Anyone who reads the book will find this theme developed with its theological and religious implications. Meanwhile we might reasonably draw at least one obvious lesson from it. If the monk is a man whose whole life is built around a deeply religious appreciation of his call to wilderness and paradise, and thereby to a special kind of kinship with God’s creatures in the new creation, and if technological society is constantly encroaching upon and destroying the remaining ‘wildernesses’ which it nevertheless needs in order to remain human, then we might suggest that the monk, of all people, should be concerned with staying in the ‘wilderness’ and helping to keep it a true ‘wilderness and paradise.’ The monk should be eager to preserve the wilderness in order to share it with those who need to come out from the cities and remember what it is like to be under trees and to climb mountains. Surely there are enough people in the cities already without monks adding to their number when they would seem to be destined by God, in our time, to be not only dwellers in the wilderness but also its protectors.’ This judgement may, admittedly, reflect a personal preference. The two books discussed here certainly show that even a monastic life in an industrial setting can also find a theological basis in the Bible and monastic tradition provided it is in fact a true ‘wilderness life’ in the spirit of the theology of the apostolate in the Gospel of St Mark.Continue reading “Wilderness & Paradise”
The practice of depositing the bodies of the dead in the ground the Christians took from the Jews. It was not wholly a Jewish custom, as may be seen by inspecting pagan tombs discovered not long since on the Latin road. But the favourite manner, used by the Romans, was that of cremation, a custom born of the sentiment of repugnance human pride has to what is so revolting in death. The Jew, who believed in the immortality of the soul, reverenced the tabernacle in which it had dwelt, and in which he believed it was again one day to live. “In my flesh shall I see my Redeemer” was for him a… Continue reading Rome – Early Christianity
Through our baptism, we are all called to a life of intimate union with Christ, a life turned towards the Father and inundated by the Holy Spirit. Action nurtured in contemplation should be the ordinary of life. A life unified in Christ is a life placed under this double movement, fruit of the Spirit: action nourished by contemplation. Continue reading What is the Contemplative Life and Whom is it for?
Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God.
Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives.
There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).
In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life.
THE ESSENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’.
Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this.
THE ASCETICISM OF DAILY LIVING
The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.
Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love.
Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life.
We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience.
More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated.
There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love.
Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily.
One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love.
What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that.
ASCETICISM VOLUNTARILY ASSUMED
Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives.
If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person.
If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases.
It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned.
Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person.
Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224Continue reading “Asceticism In Christian Living*”
When the monk has learned the secrets of solitude, when be has come to terms with his loneliness, he will find himself able, when obliged to mix with the world, to take with him his own solitude and live within it in recollection. He will have learned, without having consciously acquired a technique, how to keep sheltered his essential self in the midst of distraction. But even so, it would be foolish for him to take risks; solitude can be easily displaced, The monk, like Ruskin’s artist, should be “fit for the best society of men, and keep out of it.” Continue reading Exterior and Interior Solitude