One occasionally finds unconventional monastic communities, some in mainstream Catholicism and others in a completely “independent” situation. I have even come across people living in some kind of religious life inspired by that of hermits, even though in some cases they are married or live in an ordinary suburban home or a farm out in the countryside.
In the Rule of St Benedict, we find:
It is well known that there are four kinds of Monks. The first are Cenobites, that is Monastic, living under a Rule or Abbot. The second are Anchorets or Hermits, who, not in the first fervour of conversion, but after long probation in the monastic life, have learnt to fight against the devil, and taught by the encouragement of others, are now able by God’s assistance to strive hand to hand against the flesh and evil thoughts, and so go forth well prepared, from the army of the Brotherhood, to the single combat of the wilderness. The third and worst kind of Monks are the Sarabites, who have never been tried under any Rule, nor by the experience of a master, as gold is tried in the furnace, but being soft as lead, and by their works still cleaving to the world, are known by their tonsure to lie to God.
These in twos or threes, or perhaps singly, and without a shepherd, are shut up, not in our Lord’s sheepfolds, but in their own: the pleasure of their desires is to them a law; and whatever they like or make choice of, they will have to be holy, but what they like not, that they consider unlawful.
The fourth kind of Monks are called “Gyrovagi,” or wanderers, who travel about all their lives through divers provinces, and stay for two or three days as guests, first in one monastery, then in another; they are always roving, and never settled, giving themselves up altogether to their own pleasures and to the enticements of gluttony, and are in all things worse that the Sarabites. Of their miserable way of life it is better to be silent than to speak. Therefore leaving these, let us, by God’s assistance, set down a Rule for Cenobites, or Conventuals, who are the most steadfast class of Monks.
Despite this piece of wisdom from the sixth century, there have always been new and innovative forms of contemplative life, as attested by the multiplicity of orders and congregations in the Church, between Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Jesuits and many others. One of our regular commenters informed us about other forms of eremitical and “informal” monastic life. We should certainly heed the words of St Benedict as he warns against unattached monks or those who live in a community with very little in the way of monastic formation or a coherent rule of life. The soundest form of monastic life is in a proper community under the authority of a Father Abbot and the Rule. But, it is not always possible to join a monastery or find the right kind of official framework for every single person who desires to explore a more interior and ordered spiritual life, especially those who are married.
A very few are called to solitary life, and others yet find themselves as isolated Christians in a world that has rejected Christianity. I can conceive of the idea of lay people and isolated priests living what amounts to a monastic life even though they are not formally monks – simply those who want a simple way of life, under the discipline of a rule of life and of a certain temperament. Many people live this state of life in ordinary homes, without any external sign, and even better still, without anyone else knowing.
I came across some kind of fraternity which is not in communion with Rome or part of the Anglican Continuum, but something about them rings true. Regardless of what some “vagante” bishop and his wife are doing in some far-flung and remote part of America, they came up with an idea that can inspire us all in some way. Anyone with this kind of vocation can adjust his or her way of life and construct a disciplined contemplative life. The website of the fraternity explains – Our community has no formal vows, but is based on the simple monastic form of the early desert fathers/mothers, and is primarily friendship based. Do I not detect a note of St Philip Neri and the Oratorians, though the Oratorians like Benedictine monks live in stable communities in a coenobitic life? The link between Christians is not a vow, whereby a person freely relinquishes his or her freedom (!), but friendship and loyalty between persons who practice Christian charity and platonic friendship with each other.
The spirituality of the desert isn’t given to everyone, but I think it can be lived in differing degrees. Few of us can get to a place that is really deserted, except perhaps the few churches in cities that remain open. My desert is the sea. Go out about a league from the coast and the silence (other than the gurgling of water around the hull of the boat and the wind) is amazing. But the real desert is our own inner selves, our souls and secret gardens. No one can violate that!
We may know the story of Fr. Charles de Foucauld, the French convert soldier who took to the most austere possible monastic life in the Sahara Desert. In those days (1907), he had to have permission from the Holy See to say Mass alone. Before obtaining this permission, he had gone for years without Mass and the Sacraments! His life was incredibly harsh, even for a former soldier, but his message was clear – his vocation was one of intercession and obtaining for others the grace of conversion by means of prayer and self-sacrifice. In 1916, he was assassinated by fanatical Muslims at the door of his hermitage! In the whole of his time in the desert as a priest and a monk, he made not one single convert, and not one single person came to join him in the monastic life.
The apostolate of Blessed Charles was unique and prophetic. He refused to preach the Gospel to a population who would have only a superficial interest in the Holy Scriptures. His way was a silent and hidden presence in infidel lands. "My life is not that of a missionary, but that of a hermit". Further on, he said: "I am a monk, not a missionary, made for silence and not for words". One might be tempted to think he was selfish and unconcerned for the people around him. Not at all. He gave everything for his dear nomads, without asking for anything in return, not even conversion to Christianity. He knew the limits of proselytism. He lived in a country of Islamic people, learned their language, made himself loved.
I would certainly recommend thinking about this idea, and how a spiritual leaven can help to renew Christianity and Catholicism at a time when parishes and dioceses agonise and face their inevitable demise. All are called to holiness, but differently. But, the constraints and conditions are remarkably similar. People can be really good and welcoming even if they belong to other religions or no religion at all. It is not for us to sell our Faith, but to wait for others to discover what effect it has in us. That is the lesson of Father de Foucauld.
Seeds need time to grow, but first of all, they need to be planted.
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