lived in the tradition and spirit of the ancient Patriarchs and Prophets, as well as the
Desert Fathers and Mothers
of the early Church.
The hermit is one called by God in imitation of Jesus to live a life of unceasing prayer and penance in the silence of solitude for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. It is a life lived in stricter separation from the world in the Heart of God and in the heart of the Church for the Church.
The hermit life emerged during the fourth century in Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. Previously, thousands of Christians were martyred as they shed their blood for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom. To a world of persecuted Christians, the Emperor Constantine brought peace and the cessation of bloodshed for the faith.
When the persecutions ceased, the Church still had to face the great danger that confronts her even to this day, namely, to live in the world without compromise. “The world continued to prefer the darkness to the light” (John 3:19). Because of this threat to the authentic following of Christ and His holy Gospel, many fled into the solitude of the deserts, and thus a school of desert spirituality was forged.
These men and women strove to imitate the lives of the great patriarchs and prophets: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, St. John the Baptist, and above all Jesus Christ, Himself. Like the Exodus of Israel led by Moses in the Desert of Sinai, where the Israelites wandered for forty years, these desert dwellers saw their own exodus in following Jesus, their Model, Who was “led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted” (Matthew 4:1).
It was their burning desire for God that led these Christians into the deserts of Judea, Syria and Egypt and these deserts became the dwelling place for thousands of solitaries.
Since the world as persecutor was no longer the enemy of the Christian, the Christian had to become the enemy of the dark world. In the desert the Christian became a new kind of martyr giving witness to the saving power of the Risen Christ against the destructive powers of evil.
The school of desert spirituality which evolved from this became the foundation of the eremitic and cenobitic ways of life which have endured until this very day. The laura, a colony of hermits under obedience to a Desert Father, was one of the forms of the eremitic way of life.
St. Anthony the Great
Among the great Fathers of the Desert was St. Anthony of Egypt. He is one of the patrons of the Hermits of Bethlehem. What we know of St. Anthony is from the classic biography written by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.
St. Athanasius wrote that “You also, once you have heard the story, will not merely admire that man, but will wish to emulate his resolution as well.” Athanasius illustrates in his biography a life consecrated to God. St. Anthony’s life was written as a model for monastic and solitary living. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, tells us that the book had a definite influence on his own conversion and on the vocations of others who were seeking God.
St. Anthony was born around the year 250 in Comus, Upper Egypt. At the age of twenty, St. Anthony, orphaned in his late teens along with his younger sister, was so moved by the Gospel message read in church, “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), that he immediately responded to God’s word and distributed his rich inheritance, providing for his sister by placing her with a group of consecrated virgins.
Anthony lived in solitude some distance from his village and there spent his time reading the Scriptures, praying and doing penance. He engaged in manual labor in order to earn his food. He sought the advice and example of other outstanding hermits and strove in competition to imitate their virtues of prayer, fasting, mortification, silence, etc.
Though Anthony preferred solitude, he was much sought after for spiritual guidance and healing. Disciples built their hermitages in the vicinity of Anthony’s. He formed them into a laura, a group of solitaries, and led them in the way of perfection and holiness.
When asked for guidance, St. Anthony related stories to depict a point central to living out the Christian vocation. Because his wisdom was rooted in the Scriptures, his teachings give witness to the truth of God’s revelation. The sayings were later written down and shared with others.
St. Anthony assisted St. Athanasius in combating the Arian heresy. He had a great desire to become a martyr and in the Roman persecution of 311, he exposed himself to great danger while giving spiritual and material support to those in prison. Though Anthony’s desire to be a martyr was never fulfilled, he “went back to his solitary cell and there he was a daily martyr to his conscience, ever fighting the battles of faith.”
At the age of 60 Anthony withdrew further into the Egyptian desert and lived in greater solitude where he practiced a zealous and more intense ascetic life. He dwelt in the tombs where he suffered many temptations and came against all sorts of demons. Like Jesus he was “led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). After many years spent in seeking God through prayer, penance and combating the demons, he emerged from the desert a healthy man in body, mind and spirit. St. Athanasius writes: “Strangers knew him from among his disciples by the joy on his face.” He renounced the world to serve God in the solitude of the desert and was called “the friend of God.” In 356 he died in solitude at the age of 105.
Anthony the Great, this celebrated Father of monks and hermits, is an example for the Hermits of Bethlehem. His whole life bespeaks the possibility of living a life totally for God. Within the Church, the Hermit of Bethlehem seeks just this: to be for God, with Jesus to hold humankind in his heart, to do battle with the forces of evil so that God’s people may experience the freedom to which they are called.
The life of the hermit is characterized by assiduous prayer, the daily asceticism of eremitic life, support of one another by silent presence and a weekly opportunity for sharing.The hermit life today, like Anthony’s in the third and fourth centuries, is an invitation to the Church and world to take seriously the gospel message and to respond to the gospel with zeal and purity of heart. The gospel calls us to a full response. We are to be perfect, striving for love for God, love for neighbor, orthodoxy of faith. For the hermit this means living in desert silence and solitude for the glory of God and for the salvation of the world. As Anthony said, “Perfection is within our possibility because God dwells in us and gives the grace.”
We pray, “Father, You called St. Anthony to renounce the world and serve You in the solitude of the desert. By his prayers and example may we learn to deny ourselves and to love You above all things.” (Opening Prayer of the Mass for the Memorial of St. Anthony, January 17)
Today, in our times, we are experiencing a new phenomenon in the Church throughout the world; that is, a return to the desert.
In the ancient Church the reasons for flight into the desert were:
— to prepare and hasten the Parousia, the Coming of the Lord; to encounter the Risen Christ
— to be living martyrs giving a radical witness to the Gospel; to live out faithfully the teachings of Christ in simplicity and poverty of heart. “The martyrdom of the heart is no less fruitful than the martyrdom of blood” (St. Therese of Lisieux)
— to maintain the integrity of the Christian life; to give witness to the existence, supremacy and absoluteness of God
— to strengthen the Church which was becoming mediocre due to assimilation of worldly ways, ideologies and state recognition
— to live a life of prayer for one’s own personal sanctification and for the Church
— to embrace the concerns of the Heart of Christ, making His prayer, particularly the Our Father and His prayer for unity, one’s own: “…that they may be one, as We are one…” (John 17:22)
— to live a penitential life not only for one’s own sake but also for the Church by responding with love to His Word in the way of ascetics: “Renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24)
— to “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24)
— to seek God alone: “O God, You are my God whom I seek” (Psalm 63:2) and to be faithful to His commandments, thereby safeguarding oneself against the attack of the demons from within and without. “Therefore, submit to God; resist the devil and he will take flight” (James 4:7). “Your opponent the devil is prowling about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The spirituality of the desert was not limited to a system of practices or doctrine that could be learned and applied to daily living. The spirituality of the desert was caught, not taught. It was a whole way of life and was the hard work of a lifetime of lived experience in and of the Lord. It was a holistic approach to spirituality, of striving to direct every aspect of body, mind and soul to God.
The desert fathers accepted the challenge of the Gospel with generosity and singleness of purpose. They responded to it with their entire being without compromise. They strove to be obedient to the word and spirit of the Gospel with their entire lives.
The orientation of the whole person toward God was effected by continual prayer. Abba Agathon said, “We need to pray until we breathe out our dying breath. That is the great struggle.” (Owen Chadwick, Western Asceticism, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963)
Desert Teaching and Writings
Because the hermit life is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and lived in the tradition and spirit of the desert fathers of the early Church, each hermit pays special attention to their writings and teachings. These early Christians desired to focus their lives on the love of God which drew them to Himself. Through this love they were empowered to love God and others, and so share with others the great depths of God’s love. By living their lives through, with and in Him, they reflected His radiance to others.
The desert writings and teachings are based on stories about the desert fathers and their sayings. These writings were originally meant for specific individuals who came to the desert seeking guidance. As in the case of St. Anthony, the sayings were later written down and shared with others.
Often the desert fathers related stories to teach a point integral for the living out of the Christian vocation. Because the fathers were rooted in Scripture, their teachings give witness to the truth of God’s revelation. The wisdom of such sayings is still relevant as it communicates the essence of living in and for God.
Withdrawing from the world to seek God more intimately, these early desert fathers drew on the rich blessings of their relationship with God. The fruits of their contemplation were shared with those who came seeking spiritual or common sense advice on how to live “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:11, 16).
The contemporary hermit has withdrawn from the world to seek God more intimately. Drawing strength and wisdom from the Scripture and the desert writings and teachings in prayerful silence and solitude, the hermit hopes to share with others, through desert hospitality, the depth and beauty of communion with God.
The Eremitical Way of Life of the Hermit
The Hermit of Bethlehem lives an eremitical way of life according to the new Code of Canon Law (c. 603), which deals specifically with hermits. The bishop of a diocese receives the consecration of a hermit with the hermit’s plan of life.
Bishop Frank J. Rodimer has approved the Plan of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem and has received the perpetual public vows of each hermit. The bishop has also stated that the Hermits of Bethlehem represent a new charism in the Church today, restoring the ancient tradition of the early desert fathers.
In this eremitical way of life, the only occasions the hermits of the laura regularly come together are the following:
— for daily Eucharist
— for Solemn Vespers on Saturday and the vigil of Solemnities
— for Lauds and Eucharist on Sundays and Solemnities
— also on Sundays and Solemnities, for a common meal and sharing in the spirit of the desert fathers.
All other times of prayer, work and meals are in total solitude. Each hermit lives, prays and works alone to maintain the solitary spirit.
Each hermit is under the direction of the Desert Father and is guided according to his own needs. The Desert Father, with the hermit, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discerns how to live his particular life within the laura according to Bethlehem’s Plan of Life. While there is a Plan and Horarium, the hermit life is lived out by each hermit in an individual, solitary way within the laura. The hermit strives to accomplish this with a level of mature, responsible freedom by adapting the Plan of Life and the Horarium in order to maximize the opportunity for greater solitude. The solitary nature of the eremitic vocation demands an autonomy and flexibility that is best provided for outside the structure of the Religious Institute. This flexibility distinguishes the eremitical life from cenobitical living, wherein most exercises are experienced in common and with regularity.
In the eremitical life of solitude, the hermit continually strives to seek God above all for His own sake and to live every moment in His holy presence, growing in purity of heart in order to attain the perfection of charity.