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From the January/February, 2008
issue of Touchstone

 

Hermit Life by Richard Upsher Smith, Jr.

Hermit Life

Camaldolese Spirituality: Essential Sources
translations, notes, and introduction by Peter-Damian Belisle
Ercam Editions, 2007
(285 pages, $17.00, paperback)

In Praise of Hiddenness: The Spirituality of the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona
by a Camaldolese hermit, edited by Fr. Louis-Albert Lassus, O.P.
Ercam Editions, 2007
(108 pages, $9.00, paperback)

The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude
by Cornelius Wencel, Er.Cam.
Ercam Editions, 2007
(225 pages, $14.00, paperback)

reviewed by Richard Upsher Smith, Jr.

At Holy Family Hermitage in Bloomingdale, Ohio, the hermits rise at 3:30 A.M. and gather at 4:00 in the chapel for the Office of Readings, which can take an hour. Then they retire to their hermitages for an hour or so of lectio divina (prayerful Scripture reading). They gather again at six for Morning Prayer, the Mass, and Midmorning Prayer. Only then, alone in their hermitages, do they break the night’s fast, some time after seven.

The other Hours of the Divine Office are spaced throughout their day of work, lectio divina, meals, and free time like semi-colons, with Night Prayer putting a full stop to their labor at seven.

The three books reviewed here explain the solitary and demanding life these men have chosen to live.

Significant Fruit

The Camaldolese way was established by St. Romuald of Ravenna (ca. 952–1027), son of a Lombard lord and a Byzantine lady. Just as East and West were joined together in his family, so his reform of monasticism united the Eastern life of the solitary, silent hermit with the Western life of the community of monks living by the rule of St. Benedict.

St. Peter Damian’s Life of Blessed Romuald—described by Pope Benedict XVI as “one of the most significant fruits of the monastic life of the undivided Church”—is the principal work contained in Camaldolese Spirituality. Romuald alternated long periods of eremitic retirement with apostolic journeys, during which he reformed old congregations of monks and established new congregations of hermits. His own prayers were based on the attentive recitation of the Psalter, while seated in solitude, and were marked by frequent tears of compunction, which the Greek monks had called penthos.

Illiterate when he converted, Romuald later learned to read and write. His teaching was drawn from his reading of the Desert Fathers, and he also wrote a commentary on the Psalms, now lost. Romuald also militated against simony, and among his new and reformed congregations he had many struggles with corrupt monks and hermits. In retirement, he fought many battles with the demons.

The other works in the book, some never before translated into English, and dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, are “The Life of the Five Hermit Brothers” by St. Bruno of Querfurt, Peter Damian’s Letter 28, Dominus Vobiscum, the Constitutions of Rudolf I of Camaldoli, and the Book of the Eremitical Rule by Rudolf II-III of Camaldoli.

The works by Bruno and Peter Damian provide an invaluable introduction to the little-known spiritual life of the eleventh century, the century of the reform of clerical concubinage, lay investiture, and papal elections. (Benedict calls Peter Damian “the soul” of the Gregorian reform.)

The Threefold Good

Bruno’s “Life of the Five Hermit Brothers,” written to promote the canonization of Romuald’s disciples martyred in pagan Poland in 1004, strikes the modern reader as credulous and crude, but is rhetorically sophisticated and based on historical fact.

In it Bruno reports the origin of Romuald’s “threefold good,” the organizing principle of his monastic reform: a monastery for beginners, a hermitage connected with it for the spiritually mature, and missionary journeys to the pagans. Chapter 52 contains St. Romuald’s own Brief Rule, “of sharp contemplative, hesychastic flavor.”

Peter Damian’s Letter 28 is a profound meditation on the unity of the Church, written to resolve the doubts of certain hermits about the propriety of saying “Dominus vobiscum” when reciting the Divine Office in solitude. His answer, though worked out in persuasive detail, is contained in his apophthegm,

The Church of Christ is united in all her parts by the bond of love, so that she is both one in many members and mystically whole in each member. And so we see that the entire universal Church is correctly called the one and only bride of Christ, while each chosen soul, by virtue of the sacramental mysteries, is considered fully the Church.

The treatise closes with a famous encomium of the eremitic life.

The works by the two Rudolfs of Camaldoli are of considerable historical and spiritual interest. While the Constitutions still breathe the fire of the eleventh-century reform, the Book of the Eremitical Rule exhales the sweet humanity of the twelfth-century renaissance, distilled in the aphorism, “We must extinguish the concupiscence of the flesh, not nature.”

I have spot-checked the translations of all these works against the Latin, except for Bruno’s. The translations seem workmanlike, with a few small but not serious mistakes ( illa ełtas should be translated as “that stage of life,” not “his day,” and rudis as “unsophisticated,” not “uncouth,” for example).

A Polish hermit heavily influenced by existentialism, Cornelius Wencel’s favorite adjectives are “existential” and “authentic.” His The Eremitic Life covers many of the same topics as In Praise of Hiddenness, but his words hang like gauze between the reader and the object of study.

A clearer introduction to this life can be found in the other books reviewed here or in Dom Jean Leclercq’s Camaldolese Extraordinary (also published by the Hermitage), a study of Blessed Paul Giustiniani, the founder of the Congregation of Monte Corona.

Solitude & Success

In Praise of Hiddenness is a series of eight conferences given by a contemporary prior of Monte Corona, examining true success, solitude, hesychasm, penthos, work, obedience, communio, and joy. The language is simple, but the reflections run deep.

The author conforms his thinking to Holy Scripture, the Desert Fathers, and the Camaldolese tradition, but he is quite alert to the ills of postmodern society and to the medicine eremitism can supply. The book closes with an illuminating commentary on the sources for St. Romuald’s life. I highly recommend this book for those who wish to know about the hermit life or who wish to deepen their own spiritual knowledge.

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