Yesterday was the feastday of Saint Paul the first hermit which ties in nicely with tomorrows feastday, which is that of Saint Anthony the Abbot who, according to the ancient books of our Faith, buried Paul in a grave dug by lions, wrapped in the garment of Athanasius. Hermits, or Eremites, to give them their other title which gives us the adjective eremetical, which describes the lifestyle or state of the Hermits life, are people like me and you who have simply been called by God to a different style of life.
I was brought round to thinking about eremites on monday as I was to lead the prayers before the start of our weeks teaching, so I explained, I hope, something of the life of Paul and of the cloistered monastics in the Anglican Communion. I had just realised the day before why one of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York who write to me looked familiar, as I went to school with him, adding to the already disproportionate number of vocations fostered in that year. So I was feeling as if I must have been in a very sinful year for God to have to call so many of us to obedience! Although none of us have entered the eremetical life, we have all some knowledge of it after five years in a cold, draughty building in the wilds of Lancashire!
Some monastics, as we know, enter the Carmel, which is a place of separateness from the world. Certain orders of Monks and Nuns put their novices through rituals which look, from the outside looking in, rather peculiar, before admitting them to the spiritual Carmel where they will live in isolation with their fellow monastics until the day they die. It is rather a great gift, I suppose, to be with a chosen family so intensely and to retreat into a simple life. When I visit a certain monastery in Scotland, it feels as though one steps back in time to a medieval age when things were more straightforward and clear cut. However, some monastics are called to go a step further, some form Sketes, a collection of people living the eremetical life, like Sister Petra Clare, the great iconographer who has a link at the side of this page. Some have chosen for them by God the life of a hermit, lived in great seclusion all their life, alone and self supporting. I think that this is possibly the closest form of religious life to that of a Parish Priest today, given the clear discrepancies in location, as both the Parish Priest and the Eremite have to motivate themselves to pray the Office, live a holy life and follow God's commandments.
There is a story tole of Thomas Merton, who was a monk. He went to his abbot and said 'Father Abbot, I feel that God is calling me to be a hermit, will you allow me to undertake this?' Father Abbot, who was a wise man, responded along the lines that Brother Thomas did indeed want to be a hermit, but a hermit who was easily locateable, with flashing neon signs pointing the way and a great sign over his cave saying 'look, look, Hermit! See the Holy Man!'. Sometimes we meet priests who are rather similar to this, do we not? And sometimes we may meet people who in desperation to take Holy Orders do so irregularly, through 'Bishops' who may have inherited a line of succession, but exercise none of their office other than the public ministrations when there is an audience. I once spoke, many years ago, to a man who claimed to be an Archbishop. When I asked if that was 'Archbishop So-And-So', he relied 'it depends who is calling!' It is as hard to be humble and live the internal life simply if we are alone with our thoughts or surrounded by people who look to our thoughts or when we feel abandoned and let down. However, it is possible only to deny God's will, not to bend it.
Monastics, hermits, priests, wandering Bishops who sing Mass in their garages, all these people are the stock of satirists. A drunk priest or a mad Bishop will always raise a laugh for Television Comedy shows or an author. Look at Blackadder, Robin Hood, the Barchester Chronicles, Chaucer or Morecambe and Wise and countless others for confirmation of this. Why is this? I like to think that it is because we actually are parodies, when we are at our best. The world has evolved to such an extent that we are living in a parallel bubble to reality. Reality is feeding ourselves, sheltering each other, finding fresh water supplies and making ourselves as comfortable as we may. Christ and then a succession of Holy Men and Women have come over time to remind us of this and, generally, been sent away, killed or parodied into sound-bite sized nuggets. Reality, as Christ, the most parodied man of all told us, is also and mainly concerned with what comes after life.
Hence it is that we are parodies. We follow a swear word. We base our lives on the bestselling book in the world that no-one has ever read, we look for the impossible and we soldier on when no one is interested. When we find fellow believers, we often self deprecate to such an extent that we make Church seem like a way of meeting the neighbours. Indeed, if we saw Christ calming the storm then casting the demons into pigs, we too might just ask him to go away and leave us alone, as He was frightening the old ladies and upsetting the thurifer.
However, we have to be good parodies. So good that not only will we believe the parody of the world that we present, for we know it to be true, but others will as well. We may bring people to believing our parody by laughter, initially, but I like to think that sincerity is the better way and belief so clear that it is infectious and fire spreads quicker than laughter and lasts much, much longer.
Let us pray that all holy Hermits and Eremites may pray for us, that we may keep the flame of faith burning in our lives as they did, even when we feel alone in our task.