Hermits and Hermit Cells

Hermits and Hermit Cells

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 Eremite
Into the Desert, his Victorious Field

John Milton. Paradise Regain’d; Book 1, 1671.

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. 

Barnard Castle

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.

St Andrew, Walpole St Andrew, Norfolk

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. Herbert’s Isle
© Keswick Launch

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. 

Engraving of Interior of St. Robert’s Chapel

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. 

Exterior view of St. Roberts Chapel at Knaresborough, North Yorks.

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.  

William Lole
The old Hermit of Newton Burgoland ca. 1850.

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”
Wilderness & Paradise

Wilderness & Paradise

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. 

YeShimon (Judean Desert), the Place of Desolation where Jesus spent 40 days.

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. 

Puritan of the Massachusetts Bay Colony New England, on their way to church. December 22, 1620.

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”
Exterior and Interior Solitude

Exterior and Interior Solitude

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

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

Traditions of Spiritual Guidance

The Carthusians

To the poor of the world we give bread or whatever else our resources afford or goodwill suggests: we rarely receive them under our roof but instead send them to find lodgings in the village. For it is notfor the temporal care of the bodies of our neighbours that we havefled to this desert, butfor the eternal salvation of our souls. Therefore it is not surprising if we give more friendship and assistance to those who come here for the sake of their souls than to those who come for the sake of their bodies.

Guigo I, Consuetudines Cartusiae (hereafter CC) 20:1; (Latin text with French translation in Sources Chrdtiennes vol 313 (1984), p 206.

(Please note the that the photographs do not relate to the written article (but are of Carthusian origin) and are there purely for aesthetics)

Saint Bruno the Carthusian Ⓒ 2019 Theophilia @ deviantart

THIS extract from the earliest Carthusian customary (c.1125), the Consuetudines Cartusiae of Prior Guigo I, may appear somewhat chilly to those acquainted with St Benedict’s injunction to receive the poor as though receiving Christ himself (though in fact, as Guigo subsequently points out, the monks did give generously of what little they had to be distributed in nearby villages). But it underlines one of the most striking features of the early Carthusians, the ‘unworthy and useless poor men of Christ who dwell in the desert of the Chartreuse for love of the name of Jesus’, as another early prior of the Grande Chartreuse put it: the careful and coherent way in which, from the very start, they set about creating a manner of life that would be appropriate in every particular to the vocation they had embraced. The first charterhouses were, like the Chartreuse itself, in distinctly inhospitable (though not always uninhabited) places; the monks sought to be self-sufficient as far as they possibly could; and one of the distinctive features of the early communities was the way they set about clearing or purchasing the land around the monastery (within the termini they themselves specified) in order to guarantee the solitude they needed. This might seem to imply that the ‘poor men of Christ’ had little to do with the poor men and women of this world.

La Grande Chartreuse

Yet the contradiction is more apparent than real. One of the striking features of the early Carthusians, as with the Cistercians and others, was the way in which, even from their mountainous retreats, they took part in the affairs of the world outside. Like St Bernard (with whom he corresponded), Prior Guigo I did not hesitate to tell the Church how to behave itself, and to use his influence to espouse the principles of the Gregorian reform; and the early monks of the nearby monastery of Portes, one of the first to affiliate to the fledgling order in the early twelfth century, wrote a number of letters offering detailed spiritual guidance both to religious and lay people. 

For all the rigour of their asceticism, then, the early Carthusians did not see themselves as entirely cut off from the needs of the Church as a whole: indeed they saw their vocation not so much as a flight from the world as a flight for the world, and their way of life, centred upon what Guigo I called the ‘quasi bina dilectio‘ (almost twofold love, of God and of neighbour), as a challenge and even a witness to their contemporaries. The reluctance to help the physically poor was part of this asceticism, part of a means to a greater end: those who sought to live with the utmost simplicity and in the utmost poverty themselves would have little material wealth or property to share with others. What they could share was something altogether deeper: a philosophia, or ‘lived wisdom’, that might touch hearts and change lives far beyond the bleak termini of the charterhouse. 

From the beginning, then, what the Carthusians had to offer was not material wealth (they have succeeded, perhaps to a greater extent than any other monastic order, in avoiding that altogether), nor even gems of individual guidance, but the witness of their lives. The Grande Chartreuse itself was founded by St Bruno, formerly chancellor of the cathedral at Rheims, in 1084; and it is clear that the distinctive lineaments and rhythm of the Carthusian life owe their origins to him, even though it was the fifth prior, Guigo I, who (as we have seen) first committed their customs to writing. The life was a coherent and carefully worked out blend of the cenobitic and eremitic, each fulfilling the other; and it was made possible by the institution of conversi who were not so much servants as lay monks, and whose lives involved more manual labour than that of the choir monks, yet who from the start were clearly seen to be integral and full members of the whole community. 

There were no novice masters in the early charterhouses; and monastic formation took place in the cell: Guigo I says that one of the experienced monks (as well as the prior) would be deputed to visit the novice there ‘to instruct him in necessary things’. The life of a Carthusian choir-monk was minutely prescribed, and with good reason: the balance of solitude and community, the blend of prayer, physical work, recreation and study was carefully structured and maintained. From the start, then, spiritual guidance in the charterhouse was primarily a group affair, not an individual one: the whole community, in their corporate liturgy, chapter meetings and recreation as well as in their long hours in solitude, took responsibility for one another; and their founder described their life as ‘His [Christ’s] school, under the discipline of the Holy Spirit’. Tilden Edwards has pointed out that group spiritual direction is in fact the standard form of guidance in the Christian tradition; and the Carthusians were and still are among its exemplars. What this meant in practice is the subject of most of the remainder of this article. 

First and foremost, and notwithstanding the emphasis on the community already noted, the Carthusian monk or nun s had to develop a considerable capacity for self-knowledge and awareness. In a remarkable set of meditations, written in about 1115, Guigo I reflected constantly and critically on his own experience and reactions. This is what he wrote about a disaster at Vespers: 

Notice how, when you recently tripped up in front of the brethren by saying one antiphon instead of another, your mind tried to think of a way of putting the blame on something else–either on the book itself, or on some other thing. For your heart was reluctant to see itself as it really is, and so it pretended to itself that it was different, inclining itself to evil words to excuse its sin. The Lord will reprove you, and set before you what you have done: you won’t be able to hide from yourself any longer, or to escape from yourself. 

Some of the meditations are extremely short, such as the pithy Meditation 87: ‘Insult any harlot you like–if you dare’. Invariably, however, the emphasis is upon self-scrutiny: 

There are certain tastes, like that of honey; and there are certain temperaments and passions, like those of the flesh. When these things are either taken away or damaged, notice how this is for you (quomodo sit tibi vide). 

It is also worth noting that this self-scrutiny involves a genuinely pastoral concern for others: 

Notice how you can, in the hope of what is to come, love the harvest in the young shoot, and the twisted tree-trunk. In the same way you must love those who are not yet good . . . 

Not much is gained if you take away from a person something that he holds onto wrongly; but it is if, by our words of encouragement and by your example, you get him to let it go of his own accord…

This is not unhealthy self-absorption, but the indispensable precondition, not only for the Carthusian life, but for any life centred upon love: indeed the psychological acuteness of Guigo’s emphasis on understanding yourself and reflecting on your reactions to all that happens to you is remarkable. To know ourselves, as Guigo makes clear throughout his 476 meditations, is to become aware both of our inherent predisposition to run away from the truth, and of the divine love existing deep within us. Yet to face this truth will invariably be painful: for it is not just the truth, but the truth crucified, that we are called to worship (‘Sine aspectu et decore crucique affixa, adoranda est veritas’); and by discovering what it means to love God without condition or strings attached, we are freed from the dependence on (or possessiveness of) others in order to love them as we should do–to seek their true good, not simply what we think is good for them. The theology of love underpins the whole of St Bruno’s and Guigo’s conception of the Carthusian life, and informs its most practical prescriptions; and this constant and rigorous probing of one’s own interior intentions and reactions is its most fundamental prerequisite.

Secondly, the Carthusian life was characterised by the coherent interweaving of theology and lifestyle, of the individual and corporate, that is embodied by the Latin word utilitas. In his meditations Guigo I wrote: 

Happy is the person who chooses somewhere he may work without anxiety. Now this is a sure choice and worthwhile thing to work at (labor utilis) — the desire to do good to all, so that you want them to be people who do not need your help. For the more people seem to be concerned with their own interests (propriis utililatibus), the less they are doing what is good for them. For this is the distinctive good (propria utilitas) of each individual — to want to do good to all. But who understands this? 

Whoever, therefore, seeks to work for his own good, not only does not find it, but also incurs great harm to his soul. For while he seeks his own good, which cannot be sought at all, he is rejected by the common good, that is, by God. For just as there is one ~ nature for everyone, so also there is one common good (ita et utilitas).

It is worth noting in passing Guigo’s psychological perception here too: the emphasis upon seeking to set people free from being dependent on your help is a fundamental aspect of all spiritual direction. The emphasis on the common good, on the essentially corporate aspect of Carthusian spirituality, is even more important however, and underlines the stress on group support and guidance referred to above. And the integrated nature of their lives went further than that: both Guigo I and the Carthusians of Portes, writing letters of spiritual guidance, stressed the interweaving of what was traditionally called ‘spiritual exercise’ (the fourfold monastic pattern of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation) with public liturgical worship, physical exercise, study and other aspects of the common life. This a crucial point: whether later Carthusian (and other) writers, such as Guigo II, (whose Scala Claustralium or ‘Ladder of Monks became very popular after his death in c.1190) explored in great detail the relationship between the four different ingredients of ‘spiritual exercise’, Guigo I shows no interest in that at all, instead concentrating on emphasising the relationship between all of them and the other, more corporate, aspects of the Carthusian life, as well as to the heart of the monastic vocation itself. Love of God, and of neighbour— the two parts of the quasi bina dilectio belong together: by devoting his life to those exercises which, in the context of solitude and poverty, dispose him to receive and be transformed by the love of God, the monk who has apparently renounced his neighbour discovers instead the surest possible means of loving him. 

This exploration of the practice and theology of the early Carthusians may appear to have very little to do with the wider subject of spiritual guidance within the Carthusian tradition as a whole. In fact, however, it has everything to do with it: the distinctive features of Carthusian spiritual guidance are not to be found by examining later works which happen to have been written by Carthusians but which in most cases could as easily have been written by members of any religious order, but by coming to see that it was their whole lives, and above all their common life, which was their primary contribution to the lives of others. When Guigo I wrote his life of St Hugh of Grenoble (and, to a considerable extent, when Adam Abbot of Eynsham wrote the life of another early Carthusian, St Hugh of Lincoln), he was not producing just another work of hushed hagiography, but offering what is in effect the essence of the Carthusian life as it could be (and was) lived by busy Christians ‘in the world’: both Hughs were bishops, both were described as incarnating the theology of love which lay at the heart of the Carthusian vocation, and as seeking, in lives unconditionally devoted to God alone, to be free to discern others’ true worth as well as to issue prophetic warnings about social and ecclesiastical evils. Instead of simply giving the world aims, the Carthusians gave it people: a significant number of bishops and others emerged during the centuries from the termini of the charterhouses. Instead of compromising their own form of life, they offered its virtues, suitably adapted, for those living in the world. 

Not everyone, then, has to renounce everything and don the white Carthusian cowl in order to recognize, and live, the distinctive principles and dynamic which informed and still inform their vocation. The slow and costly process of reflecting regularly on your own experience and reactions, and above all on your own motives and intentions; the concern to foster a thoroughgoing openness, even passivity, towards God in order to be more free to love other people without seeking to dominate or manipulate them; the willingness to work away at creating (and helping others to create) a pattern of life that integrates both solitude and common life in such a way as to fulfil each; and the readiness to seek a genuine simplicity of life which might help you live in loving and hidden identification with the physically poor and deprived–all these are essential dimensions of any authentic Christian spirituality. And to achieve them we will need guidance; not only, or even primarily, the one-to-one individual guidance that has in recent years become popular, but also the kind of critical yet loving mutual support and encouragement that a group, family or Christian parish community can offer its members, not by the eloquence of its speech or even by the quality of each person’s private piety, but precisely by the openness and attentive love which informs its common life. 

The spirituality of the Carthusian life was influenced, like that of any other order, by the prevailing insights and circumstances of the times; and most of the authors and texts mentioned in the remainder of this article wrote letters and treatises on spiritual guidance which in large part could have been written by members of any contemporary enclosed order. The 1972 Statutes of the Order contain restrictions in this respect which not all former Carthusians have observed. The Statutes explicitly say, for example: 

We never give spiritual direction by letter; nor may any of us preach in public. If seculars do not benefit from our silence, much less will they from our speech.

From earliest times, however, the Carthusians were able to reach people without speaking: Guigo I himself describes in detail the distinctively Carthusian form of praedicatio muta, which was the copying of manuscripts, a form of apostolate peculiarly well suited to contemplative monks. This practice continued thereafter: Michael Sargent has pointed out the way in which late medieval Carthusian monks, particularly (though not only) in England, translated and copied earlier spiritual texts, partly in order to make them available to a wider literate (but not Latin-reading) lay audience, partly to combat the spread of Wycliffite and other forms of heresy. This is important: the Carthusians have never entirely separated theology from spirituality, and have never entirely lost their concern for truth, even in periods when the practice of prayer was at its most affective. The ‘Mirrour of the Blessed Life of Jesu Christ’ by Nicholas Love (c.1410), a Carthusian of Mount Grace, Yorkshire, is a good example of this: is a translation of an earlier work by the Pseudo-Bonaventure, and its popularity suggests that it served both a devotional and a propagandist purpose.

The writings of some later Carthusians certainly suggest that their praedicatio was anything but muta—and (as has already been said) much of it contains little that is distinctively Carthusian. Ludolph of Saxony, for example, who was a monk of the charterhouse of Coblentz and who lived from 1295 to 1377, wrote a Life of Christ which (to judge by the number of manuscript copies and printed editions) was widely disseminated: its emphasis on imitatio Christi was typical of the age, though Ludolph’s reflections on the delights of natural beauty recall similar passages in the beautiful letter of St Bruno to his friend Raoul le Verd. Others produced works that were more explicitly concerned with spiritual guidance: Robert, a monk of the charterhouse of Le Parc-en-Charnie in France who died in 1388, wrote Le chastel perilleux, a treatise written to his cousin, who was a Benedictine nun: it is full of practical advice about contemplative prayer, praying in common, the sacramental life and other subjects likely to be of interest to both religious and lay readers. Others seem to have acquired something of a reputation as spiritual guides: the prolific Denys, a Dutch Carthusian who lived from 1402 to 1471, wrote innumerable letters of counsel, only a few of which survive, and also complete sequences of sermons, both for religious and for those ‘in the world’: his complete works fill over forty substantial volumes. Finally, Richard Methley (1451-1528), also of Mount Grace, wrote a number of treatises on the monastic and spiritual life, and appears to have been in some demand as a director. 

As time passed, then, the Carthusians became involved in the practice of spiritual guidance to a degree far greater than was envisaged either by their founders or by their modern successors. And yet the primary concern of the Carthusians has never been spiritual guidance, but the way of living which, as we have seen, was their most distinctive act of witness. The establishing in 1984 of the first Carthusian monastery in the Third World, in southern Brazil, illustrates this point: their principal contribution to the poor among whom they now live is likely to be this hidden and loving identification, in the crucified pauper Christus, that is articulated in the Carthusian vocation, rather than any commitment to an active apostolate. And to a society less committed than ours to the pursuit of privatised perfection, such an apostolate might be infinitely more fruitful than we suppose. Why? Because, better than any frantic activist, it may help us all to rethink our values: in the desert, waiting and passivity and silence are inherently creative, not useless; apparent redundancy in the world’s eyes and your own can allow God to use you for his purposes; in and through the poor, the solitary and the powerless, God ushers in the kingdom of heaven. The most recent Statutes of the Order express this with simple eloquence: 

In choosing this, the ‘best part’, it is not our advantage alone that we have in view; in embracing a hidden life we do not abandon the great family of our fellow men; on the contrary, by devoting ourselves exclusively to God we exercise a special function in the Church where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contemplation… 

If, therefore, we are truly living in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut up in themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it. Set apart from all, to all we are united, so that it is in the name of all that we stand before the living God.

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The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The silent and hidden apostolate of the contemplative

The Church, in her fidelity, values all things according to the preferences of her divine Spouse. Now, our Lord esteems His elect not so much by the activity of their works, as by the hidden perfection of their lives; that perfection which is measured by the intensity of the divine life, and of which it is said: ‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Again it is said of this divine life: ‘You are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.’”

The good always seeks to spread.

In fact, the more perfect a being, the more good they radiate around themselves. Everything that is full of life, joy, love, seeks to spread love, joy and life. This is true for all things and in all areas of one’s life. Take the example of a flower which is perfection within a plant; it spreads the radiance of its colour, its fragrance and its seeds. A bird which is happy to live freely, rejoices the whole countryside with its melodious song.

Its the same for man. When a person has found something that they are happy with, they want to share it with everyone, a magnificent landscape, an inspiring book, just to give an example. All life, all joy, all love, wants to spread even if just a little. Because what we liked, what exhilarated us, that should and ought to also please our fellow men and exhilarate them in turn. 

It is therefore a consequence of human solidarity if we are full of ourselves and therefore full of bitterness and envy, we will only pass on to others what we have. However, if we are filled with the peace and gentleness of Our Lord, we will overflow with that peace and gentleness which enables us to console others. 

We are able to distinguish two kinds of joy and love: expressed and unexpressed joy, manifested and hidden love, in short, the active outer life and the contemplative inner life. 

A Carthusian at contemplation.

In the active exterior life, you know that you are able to communicate your beliefs and feelings, and how you achieve it. If truth be told, this is a gift that not everyone has in their possession; it depends a lot on one’s physical make-up. Those who have a beautiful voice, a profound air, gracious manners, and whatever else there may be? They know how to impose themselves upon others and transmit their ideas or their desire. They are the great orators, they are great teachers of men; some among them, are saints, other politicians, or even men who, without being on a public platform, succeed within society in uniting enthusiasm and empathy for them. 

Yet, it is quite another thing to have a heart filled to brim with love and a radiating mind or to have a gift in gratifying and persuading others. These are two quite distinct genres. 

You could, for example, be aflame with the love of God and have compassion for the poor, but be witless or blind and not have two pennies to rub together; in this case, no one would ever suspect what is within your heart. 

I read somewhere the story of a child who cried when he was happy and laughed when he was sad: it was impossible for him to communicate his joy and his sadness, but he still had inner joys and sorrows.

So we have to conclude this: a good word, a smile, these are really good entities and they spread a little consolation around them, just like a flower or a bird of spring. But this radiance of our words, of our actions, is not yet the radiance of our ideas or our feelings. 

Our ideas and our feelings, all that we have in the heart of light and love, these are realities which are no longer physical, material, but moral, spiritual, invisible, that is to say therefore, that they must also have a spiritual, invisible radiance. 

To better understand how necessary this is, let us for example compare, a good thought toward a star.

As God lights a star in the night sky, He instills within our minds an act of trust in Him and a desire to comfort all the poor suffering hearts upon the earth. What was most valuable and most important? The star, or the act of faith and charity? It is obvious that what is within our soul is far more important than the whole the celestial sphere; a scientist pointed out that if a man is materially very small in the presence of the stars, he is infinitely greater than all of them through his spirit since he can know them and know that God has created them, whilst the stars don’t know anything about God or creation.

So a good thought is infinitely greater in value than a star! A heart full of love is a home hotter than the sun! Could you ever believe that God would allow this absurdity, of a star to radiate its light which radiates billions of miles away and for millions of years, to make known the ardour of this distant entity, of this spinning globe of matter? in the frozen vastness of space, and that a soul united to God is deprived of its radiance or that its radiance depends on some type of unfortunate physical conditions: a voice more or less clamorous, a more or less intelligent air, a more or less considerable force? No! A hundred times no! 

The Church that is right when she teaches us the extraordinary and important dogma of the Communio SanctorumCommunion of Saints — the fellowship of those united to Jesus Christ in Baptism. All of our good thoughts and our good sentiments, our acts of Faith and Love which are just like spiritual stars; they radiate both faith and love ad infinitum. They are centres of consolation, and of strength; souls which are united to God forming an immense constellation which dazzles the eyes of angels and which must never be extinguished in the heavens of Holy Mother Church. 

The apostolate of the contemplatives, a silent and invisible apostolate, rests entirely upon this affirmation: love is something tangible, concrete, and even what is most real in the world, and the world can only be saved through acts of Faith and Charity

Carthusian nun at prayer

This is what God is asking of man, it is what repairs the evil caused by sin, it is what consoles and strengthens those who are suffering, not through good words, or money, not even (outward) examples of virtue, it is Faith and Charity, which give life to these words, to these alms, to these examples.

But Faith and Charity still have a far more extensive action than the external works which they have to animate.

Indeed, a heart united to Our Lord, an immolated soul cooperates in the redemptive action of Our Lord which in turn radiates love within hearts, in union with the hearth of divine Charity.

Outer works reach only the exterior part of men; inner acts of charity impart life and consolation to countless souls within hearts.

The material alms are extremely limited, but the alms of contemplatives are an inexhaustible source within both time and space. 

Thérèse of the Child Jesus

If the role of contemplatives is so little understood and so difficult to support, it is because, here, everything happens in the invisible; it is absolutely necessary to live in the night of supernatural Faith. But what makes this life so difficult is also what makes it worth. A man’s life is substantial and beautiful insofar as it is animated by Faith. Those who only believe in what they see are cowards who achieve nothing at all and will meet their death in a pensioner’s reclining chair, or behind a grocery counter without ever having made a fortune, because it takes a certain kind of daring and fearlessness to make a fortune! It is through a leap of faith that all great businesses become possible. Imagine what kind of a leap of faith it took for Christopher Columbus to be the first to set off on an uncharted and perilous ocean and discover the Americas! Well, to be a cloistered religious, to be contemplative, one has to have significantly greater faith. We must set off just as Saint Peter did, walk upon the sea which at any moment seems intent on swallowing us up. You have to (as the Little Flower Thérèse of the Child Jesus reminds us) go through extremely dark tunnels, so dark that you begin to wonder if the sun still prevails. You have to take a chance and risk your life, you have to throw yourself eyes closed into the arms of the Good Lord who is waiting for us within this darkness. This is the price of the heroism of the saints! Entering the unknown, taking a chance and without a second though, make the jump based on good faith. Its a risk that many would not take.

But what these heroes — whom are bolder than all of the navigating and explorers in history—, are discovering is not the New World, the continent of America, it is not even El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Gold —a new earthly paradise— it is, right here below, on earth, the true Kingdom of Heaven, promised by the Son of God.

It is for those who live like this in Faith that Our Lord said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29) and here I would like to remind you all that Faith in Our Lord is not blind faith. The Bible does not tell us to exercise “blind faith,” but a faith which is firmly embedded in objective reality.

Prayer to Saint Bruno

Saint Bruno

O God, merciful Father, who called Saint Bruno to the solitude of the desert to found the Order of the Carthusian monastery; We ask you to free us from the sorrows of this world through his intercession and to grant us the gift of peace and spiritual joy that you have promised to those who persevere in seeking you.


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Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolises — 

namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but 

transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we 

leave as brides.

Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …,” p. 22.


St. John Cassian

In his two works, the Cenobitic Institutions and the Conferences of the Fathers, John Cassian described in great detail the path of spiritual progress for those who seek perfection or, one could say, that happiness that consists in the contemplation of divine things. Although written as two distinct works, the Institutions and Conferences have been conceived as a single project and form a whole that expresses two stages of the spiritual life. In the preface to the Conferences Cassian explains the link between the first part, the Institutions, and the second part, the Conferences, in this way: 

“From the external and visible aspect of monastic life — which I have dealt with in other books — I will now pass to deal with the interior and invisible life. From the prayer of the canonical hours, I now come to deal with that continuous prayer of which St. Paul. Thus the one who in reading the previous work earned the name of Jacob according to the spirit (after having eradicated the carnal vices), now, through the study of the teachings of the Fathers of the desert, will be able to reach the contemplation of divine purity, he will be encouraged to call himself Israel, he will learn what duties are to be observed on the very summit of perfection.” [1]

Here we find a summary of Cassian’s entire doctrine and his key ideas: the spiritual life understood as a passage from the exterior to the interior; the final purpose of “continuous prayer” which is at the same time the contemplation of divine things, the invisible things; the active (or current) life, the first step necessary to make further progress, symbolised by the figure of Jacob, and the end of the contemplative life, represented by the name Israel. It must be added that the place where this development takes place is “the inner man”, a terminology clearly inspired by himself. Paul. [2] This is the vision of possible spiritual progress that is precisely developed in the twenty-four conferences that follow. Here I will only address a few main points.

I. Jacob / Israel 


The use of the names Jacob/Israel to designate two phases of the spiritual life puts us in contact with a rich tradition. This etymological/allegorical interpretation dates back at least to Philo of Alexandria who explains that “he who loves knowledge believes that one must leave the land of sensation, which has the name (חָרָן) Ḥārān”. Later he says that Jacob left Ḥārān at the age of seventy-five and, after explaining the meaning of the number, he continues: 

“In this issue we find the ascetic, still intent on gymnastic training and who has not yet been able to achieve a definitive victory. Indeed, it is said that “the souls born of Jacob were seventy-five in all” (Ex 1,5). [200] Souls, and not children of bodies, belong, therefore, to those who fight and do not succumb in the truly holy struggle for the conquest of virtue, even if they have not yet broken the bridges with the irrational and still pull the mass behind them of sensation. Jacob, in effect, is the name of the one who paws and prepares himself for the fight and the clash, but who has not yet won. [201] But when it became clear that he was able to see God, then his name was changed to that of Israel.” [3]

The allegorical/etymological interpretation of the two names Jacob/Israel, which is also found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in Anthony’s letters, [4] documents the widespread diffusion of the concept of the possibility of spiritual progress in early monasticism. Cassian himself returns to terminology in his twelfth lecture where he expands the interpretation with a chain of other allegorical interpretations. Referring to the text of Genesis 32:28, he says: 

“Whoever has passed the degree of chastity depicted in the” suppliant “Jacob, will not only paralyse the nerve in the side, but from the struggles for continence and from the work to substitute virtue for vices, will rise to the glorious title of Israel, and the his heart will no longer deviate from the right direction.” [5]

Cassian states that David also distinguished these two moments in the life of the spirit. He quotes the first part of the first verse of Psalm 75:2 “God made himself known in Judea,” explaining that the verse means “in the soul that has yet to confess his sins because Judea means confession”. Then he explains that “in Israel, which means” he who sees God “or — as another etymology wants — in man perfectly upright before God, the Lord is not only known, but “great is his name”, that is, the second part of the verse of the psalm. He then moves on to the second verse of the psalm: “His abode is established in peace” and comments: “In other words, the abode of God is not where the struggle against vice takes place, but in the peace of chastity and in the perpetual tranquility of heart.” [6] 

II. The goal of contemplation 

To better explain the difference between these two moments in the life of the spirit represented by Jacob and Israel, Cassian introduces the distinction between the end and purpose of the spiritual life.

Based on the saying found in Luke’s Gospel, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and following an already established interpretation, he identifies this interior kingdom with contemplation. This is the goal of the spiritual journey: to see God, to become Israel “he who sees God”.

Already during the first conference, however, Cassian was trying to give his reader at least a fleeting appearance of the happiness that awaits those who make progress in contemplation. He explains that “divine contemplation is to be understood in several ways” and offers a long list of possibilities, or possible starting points for developing contemplation. God is known not only through his incomprehensible essence, but through all creation. The grains of sand and raindrops also offer a starting point for contemplating his providence. The whole history of salvation, long-suffering, mercy, the grace of God, offer opportunities for contemplation. First of all it is the Incarnation of his Son that gives us material for the knowledge of God. Cassian concludes: 

“On all these occasions we rise to divine contemplation. Considerations on the type of those enumerated so far can be had in almost infinite quantities: they are born in our intimate in direct relation to the perfection of our life and to the purity of our heart”. [7]

III. The purpose of purity of heart 

To reach this end, this happy condition of continuous prayer in which everything leads us to divine contemplation, we must acquire “purity of heart”. This is the “purpose” of the spiritual life. With “purity of heart” vision of God or contemplation becomes possible. To explain what the distinction between the end and the purpose means, Cassian introduces the example of the archer who, to obtain the prize (the end), must aim at the target (the scopos). Then he quotes Paul: «the holy Apostle, speaking elsewhere of our goal, says: “Forgetting what is behind me, and throwing myself at the things ahead, I go after the sign (Latin: bravium), to reach the reward of God’s supreme vocation”». Cassian insists that the Greek text is clearer and also mentions it: kata skopon dioko. Then he adds a paraphrase: “It is as if the Apostle said: “In aiming at the target, I forget what lies behind me — that is, the vices of the carnal man — and I try to reach my goal which is the heavenly reward.”” It must be added, however, to avoid misunderstandings, that, according to Cassian, this celestial prize can already be obtained in this world. The kingdom of God is within us.

Whoever does not keep his gaze fixed on the target (purpose), which is purity of heart, is in great danger. “It is inevitable — says Cassiano — that a soul, which no longer has a point to refer to and anchor itself to, changes at every hour and every moment, according to the thoughts that occur and under the solicitation of external events: that is, it changes the I mean by changing impressions.”  [8] This target is called purity of heart because it refers to the elimination of vices and passions. [9] The practice of the other virtues is to make our heart pure and keep it «unassailable to all perverse passions. Thus we will climb – as on a ladder (istis gradibus) — towards the perfection of charity”. [10] From a positive point of view, the target is charity, charity that cannot coexist with vices, with anger, with pride, with the contempt of a brother.

In the tradition prior to Cassian (Philo, Clement, Origen, Evagrius Pontus) this purpose was called apatheia. The phrase “purity of heart” comes from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and offers certain advantages. The reward promised to the “pure in heart” is that they will see God. Thus we see the connection with the end, that is, contemplation. At the same time, with the use of this terminology Cassian avoids the now disputed terminology of apatheia, at least in the West with the anti-Stoic and anti-Evagrian controversy of Jerome. [11] The problem for Cassian is not the theoretical one, whether it is possible to eliminate all passions, but rather the impossibility of coexistence of vices with charity or with the vision of God. Cassian underlines and reiterates this impossibility in various ways. In the fourteenth lecture on spiritual science he explains: 

«If one wants to reach contemplative science, he must first commit all his study and all energy to acquire practical science, because it is true that practical science can be obtained without the theory, but theoretical cannot be obtained without practice. The two sciences are like two distinct but ordered steps, through which our weakness can ascend to heights. If the two steps follow one another in the order described, you can reach the peaks of the spiritual life, but if the first step is removed, it will no longer be possible to fly to the top. It is useless to think of reaching the contemplation of God who first does not avoid the contagion of vices. [“The spirit of God flees deception and does not dwell in a body that is enslaved by sin” (Wisdom 1:45)]”. [12]

In other words, it is impossible to progress in the life of prayer and contemplation without making progress in the moral life. According to Cassian, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the depths of the soul (animae recessu). “In our depths there can only be one situation: either the knowledge of the truth or its ignorance; either the love of vice or the love of virtue”. 

Then he quotes Paul: “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And he concludes: 

“If the kingdom of God is within us and consists of justice, peace, joy, whoever lives in these virtues certainly lives in the kingdom of God. On the contrary: whoever lives in injustice, in discord, in the sadness that generates death , is a citizen of the kingdom of the devil, hell and death. In fact, from these signs the kingdom of God and that of the devil are distinguished”. [13]

These generic considerations become more concrete in the course of the analysis of the different passions and vices. The person, for example, under the domination of the vice of gastrimargia (“gluttony”), is unable to withstand the struggles of the inner man. [14] 

She is too busy with the desires / pleasures of the throat. The incompatibility of vice with prayer/contemplation applies to all eight vices / thoughts. However, Cassian particularly emphasises the destructive potential of the passion of anger. Contemplation means seeing God, but the vision of a God of love is incompatible with the hatred and anger that destroy the inner and spiritual vision. Cassian says: “The impulses of anger, from whatever cause they are provoked, blind the eyes of the soul, and therefore, throwing into the sharpness of the gaze” the deadly beam “of a worse evil, they prevent us from contemplating the sun of justice”. [15] Towards the end of the conferences he returns to the topic in the context of an explanation of the need not to react to offences: 

“If one considers these and other similar damages well, not only will he bear all the offences, but also the insults and punishments of all kinds, even the most cruel, that can come to him from men. And the reason is that the thoughtful man will see how nothing is more harmful than anger, nothing is more precious than the tranquility of the soul and purity of the heart. For such a pearl, not only carnal goods deserve to be despised, but also those that seem spiritual: assuming that they cannot be acquired and preserved without endangering the tranquility of the heart”. [16]

IV. The small method 

The possibility and quality of contemplation depends on the extent to which the heart becomes purified, emptied of vices, of the motions of passion that blind the inner eyes. Without moral and spiritual progress, the contemplation of divine goodness will not come badly. The angry person is unable to experience the joy of human existence; he is not capable of making good use of opportunities, not even of giving thanks to God for all that he has received. The same thing goes for the proud man or greedy for money, and so on. All vices hinder that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle. 

However, if continuous prayer is not possible while the vices and motions of passion remain in the heart, prayer itself always remains a possibility in every moment of the spiritual life, indeed a principal instrument in the search for purity of heart. Towards the end of the second conference dedicated to the subject of prayer, after having spoken of the different types of prayer, Abbot Isaac reveals a small method, “a secret that has been revealed to us by those few Fathers belonging to the good old days “. The secret consists in continually repeating the verse of the psalm: “O God, turn to my help, Lord, hurry to help me” (Psalm 69:2). Isaac explains that this verse is suitable for expressing “all the sentiments of which human nature is capable; it is perfectly suited to all states and all sorts of temptations ». It expresses humility, vigilance, the recognition of our weakness, the confidence to be heard, the ardor of charity, the awareness of the dangers. This verse, incessantly invoked, becomes “an impregnable wall, an impenetrable armour, a very strong shield”. The abbot concludes: “In short: that verse is useful to everyone and in all circumstances. Asking to be helped always and in all things is equivalent to clearly recognising that we need God’s help when everything is favourable to us and smiles at us, as when trials and adversities assail us”. [17] 

He then offers a long list, in satirical form, of the occasions when this verse must be repeated. Some examples will make us the most concrete method:

«Does the passion of the throat haunt me?” Do I go in search of foods that the desert does not know? In my squalid solitude do I breathe the scent of the foods that are on the table of kings? Do I feel attracted to wanting them, even against my will? Here I will have to say: “God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me». 

The list of occasions follows the order of the defects already analysed in the Institutions and also in the Conferences. The verse can be invoked against sleep or when sleep escapes us, and against the temptations of the flesh. 

«I want to immerse myself in spiritual reading, in order to fix my thought in God; but here is the headache prevents me. Or: it is still early morning and my head falls drowsy on the pages of the sacred book and I feel obliged to increase the hours that the rule assigns to rest, or to anticipate the rest of this day. Sometimes, precisely during our meetings, sleep prevents me from continuing to recite the Psalms. In these situations, there is nothing to do but invoke: “Lord, come to my help, God, hurry to my help”».

«I’m still in the stage where it is necessary to wage war against vices: the flesh suddenly tempts me, tries to wrest my consent while I take my night’s rest. Lest an adverse fire burn the fragrant flowers of my chastity, I will cry out, “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

We must also invoke him against anger, greed, sadness, vainglory, pride. However, even if the heart were purified from all these vices, the temptation of spiritual pride would remain. Therefore we must continue the invocation of this prayer. But this form of prayer is not only useful in the fight of the active life against vices and temptations; it also serves in every moment of the contemplative life. For example, Abbot Isaac says: 

«I feel I have rediscovered, by gift of the Holy Spirit, the direction of the soul, the stability of thoughts, the joyful readiness of the heart. I feel that, due to a sudden illumination of the Lord, a source rich in spiritual thoughts is produced in me, abundant revelations come to me on the holiest mysteries, which until now had remained completely hidden from me. To deserve to remain in this luminous state for a long time, I will say repeatedly and fervently: “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

Isaac concludes the list of possible occasions with a passage that brings to mind another passage from the Scriptures where the Israelite is recommended to repeat the shema prayer. The prayer of this verse must be meditated continuously in our heart.

«In any work, in any duty, even while traveling, the monk must always sing that verse. In eating, in sleeping, in every other need of nature, he must meditate on those words. This continuous thought will become a formula of salvation that will not only protect from the assaults of the demons, but will also purify from every vice and from every earthly stain; it will raise to the contemplation of celestial and invisible things; it will lead to an ineffable ardor of prayer, which only a few know from experience».

This verse is for the monk his schema and, paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Cassian adds: 

«You will write those words on your lips, you will carve them on the walls of your home, in the depths of your hearts, so that they are a recurring theme for you when you pray, may they also be your continuous prayer”. The use of this prayer will lead to that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle and remembered as the goal of monastic life already in the Preface of the conferences. But it is capable and useful in bringing us to union with God that words are no longer able to describe. This prayer, explains Isaac, “is not fixed on some image, indeed it is not expressed even through words: it is born of a leap, from a fiery mind, from an unspeakable rapture, from an insatiable alacrity of spirit. The soul, transported out of the senses and visible things, offers itself to God amid unspeakable sighs and groans.» 

Here is the path of the spiritual life from the point of view of prayer and contemplation. This small method, this simple form of prayer should accompany the monk along the entire path of spiritual progress, from the beginning with external prayer to the peak of contemplation. He is able to lead him even to prayer so internalised that words are no longer needed. 

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