The Solitary Religious Life – by Amma Sue
“How can you be a hermit and have an active ministry as well?” is a question that I am frequently asked whenever I attempt to describe the religious life that I live. And as a theological educator who also holds a diocesan post it does seem rather an unlikely fit; however, I want to make the distinction between the life of a hermit and the life of a solitary as I live it.
The monastic life has been a part of the Christian experience from early centuries, with women in particular choosing to live together in single sex houses in urban areas; increasingly however, there developed the impulse among men and women from about the time of Charlemagne’s reforms (which saw the official acceptance of Christianity throughout his Empire), to seek the ‘white martyrdom’ of the desert experience. Both men and women sought the solitude and danger of the desert in order to devote their lives to prayer, fasting and penance both for themselves and on behalf of their world, and indeed the word monasticism derives from the Greek root monos meaning ‘alone’. It was not long however before these desert hermits began to attract others to their way of life and gradually organised communities of hermits evolved, gathered in close proximity to their Abba or Amma; living in separate huts or caves and coming together for weekly worship and occasional shared meals. It is not possible to reliably date when this flight to the desert began, but the earliest record The Life of Saint Anthony attributed to Athanasius, suggests that while Anthony began his life in the desert at around 270, he was not the innovator of the life and is likely to have been following the example of others who had gone before him. Gradually, as men and women increasingly gathered together, such eremitic ‘communities’ began to formulate rules for living and as the ascetical life lived in solitude was not for everyone, it became easier and safer, both physically and mentally, for those called to the ascetical life to seek a coenobitic way of living under the framework of a Rule.
It’s Development in England
Nevertheless, the call to the solitary and eremitical way continued, and English spirituality in particular has been enriched and enhanced by those who chose such a way of life. It is to the Anchorhold and hermitage that we indebted for those great classics of English spirituality, the writings of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection; the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing; the famous Revelations of Divine Love of Mother Julian of Norwich and The Ancrene Rewl or Ancrene Wisse a rule written for Anchoresses sometime in the 13th century. There were, however, in addition a considerable number of anonymous solitaries, either living on the edge of villages and engaged in manual work, or enclosed beside the parish church, who lived a life of contemplation and prayer and who could not fail but influence the piety of their neighbours.
In addition Anchorites and Anchoresses were frequently consulted in spiritual matters as for example the mystic Margery Kempe consulting Julian in her Anchorhold in Norwich.
Its witness today
For many centuries the monastery and the hermitage have witnessed to God’s loving presence in a world frequently caught up in business and distraction, and have continued to witness to a life lived counter culturally. The vocation to the single consecrated life, alongside that of a life lived in the community of the monastery or convent, witnesses to the gentle call of God’s ‘still small voice’ as women and men seek to live the religious life of the Anchorite for today’s world. There are as many ways of living the consecrated single life as there are those who live it, and its variety and liveliness evidences a dynamic life inspired by the Holy Spirit and exemplified by the unity in diversity which is the Triune God. My own dedication to this way of life is, I believe, part of that diversity, as I seek to live under the vows of simplicity of living, celibacy, obedience – and solitude; which brings me back to the distinction I make between the hermit and the solitary. The vocation of the hermit is, as I understand it, qualitatively different to that of the solitary, although clearly there are many similarities, indeed overlaps in living the religious life in these ways. However, the vocation of the hermit, as I see it, is to a more enclosed, hidden way of life of prayer and contemplation than that of the solitary life as I am interpreting it.
The choice of solitude
The solitary life as I live it under a particular Rule based upon Benedictine spirituality is a life which seeks to combine and balance an active apostolic way of living with the contemplative in a qualitatively more radical way than that of someone who lives alone either by choice or circumstance.
To live the life of the solitary is to make a conscious decision for ‘aloneness’ with God and my additional vow of solitude seeks to make concrete my desire for God which becomes the foundation of my active ministry as the contemplative and the active influence and feed each other.
So, what makes my way of living different to any other consecrated single person? It is, I suggest, the active choice of the vow of solitude. It is perfectly possible to live faithfully as a consecrated single person while remaining within the community of a family or group of friends, in making the additional vow of solitude I rule out this possibility and make an active commitment to a life lived alone.
A costly but joy-filled life
Sister Laurel, an American diocesan hermit, in her blog Notes from Stillsong Hermitage (http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com) writes of solitude as Communion, communion with God. And as such the choice for the solitary is to receive this communion which of necessity withdraws the communion of husband or wife, or the communion enjoyed by family and friends living together. To make a vow of solitude brings with it both joy and sorrow, fullness and emptiness. For living the solitary life means living in full emotional dependence on God – and God is not always a vocal partner and as mystics through the ages have known and taught, God is as known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence. The solitary cannot rely upon the physical presence of a partner at the end of a busy day; the solitary, like the hermit moves from silent contemplation to silent meals prepared by her or himself.
The joy of the solitary is her or his Communion with God, her or his awareness of the loving presence of God and the fact that this communion can be entered into completely and can be responded to with all one’s heart and head, without the (legitimate) demands for time and attention that spouses and families have a right to expect.
Being a solitary and not a hermit means of course that I am also called, in a qualitatively different way than that of the hermit, into an exchange and interface with others around me, but the vow of solitude gives me the permission and freedom to withdraw, to enter into the contemplative communion with God without which I could not continue my ministry. To quote Sister Laurel again, the solitary lives within the “silence of solitude” which is deeper and more profound than simply the absence of noise, it is into the silence of solitude that the solitary is called to live, and from which to move into the activity of the apostolic life. Living under the vow of solitude enables the solitary to be immersed in the silence in order to find the presence of God. Like all religious, those called to the single consecrated life make a decision each day to live with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – in addition, the solitary makes the decision each day to live in the silence of solitude which gives this way of living the religious life its dynamic difference – and its contribution to the wonderful diversity that is the consecrated single life.