Several times a year Deacon Bert Bliss, 69, pauses from his duties as a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis to become a hermit. In a cabin-for-one, he prays, rests and walks in nature with the Lord, who reassures him that he’s on the right path in his life and ministry.
“Out in nature and with my Lord,” said Deacon Bliss of his retreats at Pacem in Terris Hermitage Retreat Center, north of the Twin Cities metro area. “One of those times was very special. Jesus was there with me.”
For the past 11 years, when Deacon Bliss needs to get away, he prefers to stay in one of Pacem in Terris’s 19 hermitages. “The place is bathed in prayer — from the hermitages to the chapel.”
Time back to God
Recognizing that the culture’s relentless noise and activity can jam communication with God, more Catholics — and some Protestants — are making hermitage retreats to meet Christ and follow his call to “come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while.”
Often inspired by Franciscan (see sidebar) or Benedictine tradition, hermitages at Pacem in Terris and across the country offer differing levels of simplicity and comfort in quiet, natural settings where adults of all ages can find their own way to be alone with God.
“Everyone who comes through that door is seeking an encounter with God,” said Tim Drake, executive director of Pacem in Terris, Latin for “Peace on Earth,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary in May. “God gives us everything. God gives us our time, and those who walk through that door are saying, ‘I want to give some of that time back to God.’”
For a donation of $20-$115 per night, hermits in some locations can stay in small cabins that may or may not have electricity, running water, a wood stove or kitchen — but never have TV, electronics or Wi-Fi. Instead, hermits sometimes have access to the sacraments and spiritual direction. Finding time for rest is important. They have no set schedule.
Unplug and go deeper
Each hermit approaches retreat differently, but it’s best to allow it to happen naturally, said Friar John-Sebastian, OFM, who serves as secretariat to the Commissariat of the Holy Land USA and The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. His community offers two hermitages at the 42-acre monastery in Washington, D.C. The monastery also features gardens and replicas of Holy Land shrines. “Disconnect,” he suggested. “Turn your cell phone off. Don’t check email. Just quietly unwind and listen.”
Alaska’s vast natural beauty gives hermits options for their hermitage retreat at the National Shrine of St. Therese near Juneau, including hiking in the surrounding national forest or viewing a glacier or wildlife, said executive director Joe Sehnert.
|St. Francis and the Life of a Hermit
| “St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” by Jan van Eyck Philadelphia Museum of Art
In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi brought attention to the ancient tradition of eremitic life by establishing and living in hermitages around Italy. As his ministry grew, St. Francis taught his hermit-followers a pattern of life that was both contemplative and actively ministerial.
The early Franciscan places where the brothers would live together — yet separately — were often caves on the sides of mountains where they could pray in solitude. The hermitages often were located in wooded areas, yet not too far from towns where they ministered.
As the Franciscan Order developed, the idea of hermitages as remote individual living spaces would be distinguished from large town-based friaries.
In his Rule for Hermitages, which St. Francis began developing in 1217, he offered a structure for eremitical life modeled after the account in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha.
He instructed some of his followers to live fully as contemplatives dedicated to prayer, while the others attended to community needs, preaching and missions. The brothers living as “mothers,” or like Martha, cared for the “sons” living in the role of Mary. St. Francis specified that all the brothers meet regularly for prayer and that periodically the roles could be reversed.
A number of St. Francis’ hermitages still exist in Italy, including the famous Eremo delle Carceri, located close to Assisi. It includes an oratory where St. Francis and his followers met for prayer and caves where they lived. At La Verna, a Tuscan hermitage site, St. Francis received the stigmata in 1224.
“There’s a real sense of the depth of God’s creation and the beauty,” Sehnert said of the shrine, a ministry of the Juneau diocese that offers one simple hermitage. “The solitude, the quiet, the presence of nature, the animals, the simplicity of the hermitage, all of these things just speak to people.”
Hermits should plan to spend most of their time in prayer, meditation and spiritual reading, said Father John Joseph Mary Cook, cabin master of 10 hermitages in operation at Mt. St. Francis Hermitage, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, in Maine, New York.
Drake encourages hermits to unplug from devices while on retreat. “Many of us constantly are doing things, and we’ve got electronics in front of us all the time, and so to give ourselves permission to just be, rather than to be doing something, can be a challenge.”
Solitude and clarity
Pacem in Terris hermitages lack running water and electricity and are gas-heated and lit. Hermits receive food for the retreat, so they aren’t distracted by having to cook, he said.
The simplicity of a retreat helps hermits come away from their usual activities, which most find refreshing, said Mary Jane Gresham, co-manager and caretaker of Vision of Peace Hermitages outside of St. Louis. Seven of its nine hermitages were built into a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River 40 years ago under the direction of Benedictines.
Some hermits have difficulty adapting to the solitude of the hermitage, Franciscan Brother John-Sebastian said, adding that a nun once spent her retreat cleaning the hermitage.
Solitude helps us to grow in relationship with God, Father Cook said. “It’s just like any relationship,” he said. “If you don’t spend time with people who are important in your life, the relationship falls apart. Not on his end but ours.”
It also helps hermits encounter themselves and see more clearly issues they need to work on, Gresham said. “Solitude just helps you discover and name those things.”
Disconnecting from ordinary life enables hermits to reconnect with God, Friar John-Sebastian said.
“The hermitage ... avails people of a way to reconnect with God in midst of all this activity,” he said. “When they remove themselves from that, they can hear him whispering in their ear and guiding them as to where he wants them.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.