Hermits and Solitaries

Hermits & Solitaries

The first Carmelites were hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel. To speak of a 'community of hermits' sounds paradoxical, but the medieval understanding of the eremitic life was not our modern notion of complete privacy and isolation. Medieval hermits, such as those on Mount Carmel, blended time spent in solitude with time spent with one another in community. They were dedicated to the service of God and neighbour through lives of prayer and penance, guided by the 'Way of Life' set out by Saint Albert of Jerusalem. Albert specified that much of their day should be spent alone, but they were to come together daily for prayer, and weekly for meals and community discernment. This movement between the solitude of the 'cell' (room) and the public space of the community is an important dynamic in Carmelite life to this day.

The hermits gathered around the Well of Elijah on Mount Carmel,
painted by Pietro Lorenzetti between 1328-29 as part of an altarpiece
for the Carmelite Church in Siena, Italy, now at the Pinacoteca in Siena.

Shortly after the hermits came from Mount Carmel to Western Europe, they developed into a mendicant order of begging brothers. The hermit lifestyle was modified, though the eremitical spirit of the Order always remained an important part of Carmelite spirituality. Whilst never fully embracing the monastic solitude of the Carthusians, some Carmelite friars spent extended periods of time living apart from their communities as anchorites and hermits. In the sixteenth century Saint Teresa of Jesus aspired to recapture something of the eremitic nature of Carmelite life as part of her Discalced reform.

Saint Brocard (left), prior of the hermits on Mount Carmel and recipient of the Rule of Saint Albert, and the prophet Elijah (right), prototype of the eremitic life, depicted in an icon written by the Carmelite nuns of Ravenna, in York Carmelite Friary

Revival of eremitic life within the Church
Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there has been a renewed interest in the 'eremitic life' of hermits and solitaries. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church comments on the eremitic life as follows: "From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. These the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved." (§§918-921)

Recent development of Carmelite hermits
It is arguably not possible for a Carmelite to be completely cut off from community life in one form or another. The Rule of Saint Albert stresses the value and challenge of community life, and as one of the Fathers of the Church, Saint Basil, asked "If I live alone, whose feet do I wash?"

However, whilst complete solitude is never possible for a Carmelite, there are certainly spiritual benefits to periods of prolonged solitude, and since the 1980s the hermit vocation has experienced something of a revival within the Carmelite Family.

For example, in the United States of America, a community of female Hermits of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was established in New Jersey. At Christoval in Texas, hermitages for men and for women were established, modelled on the Rule of Saint Albert. Other hermitages exist in other countries but there are no Carmelite communities of hermits in Britain.

A hermit from Christoval addressing the
2007 General Chapter of the Carmelite Order.
A woman hermit at Christoval where the cells are arranged
as individual houses around the communal areas.

Hermits from the various Carmelite communities in Texas
met with the Prior General in July 2011.

Some form of community life is an essential aspect of the Carmelite charism, but some people within the Carmelite Family have a particular call to place greater emphasis on the solitary vocation which is also emphasised in Albert's Rule.

Such people have always existed throughout the history of the Church, but the 1983 Code of Canon Law made particular provision for men and women who feel a calling to consecrate themselves to God through the eremitic or anchoritic life without necessarily being a member of a religious congregation or institute.

Canon 603 states: §1 Besides institutes of consecrated life the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance. §2 A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels [i.e. chastity, poverty and obedience], confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.

There are therefore a number of "consecrated hermits" or "solitaries" within the Carmelite Family who make promises to the local bishop and who live in the spirit of the Carmelite Rule of Saint Albert.

In Britain one such Solitary lives alongside the friar community at Aylesford Priory, and contributes to the Order's pastoral outreach.

Sr. Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, a Solitary, with friars at Aylesford Priory.