A Hermitage in Your Future?

My husband thinks this will be me, one day:

The hermitage isn’t what you’d expect: a small home in a quiet neighborhood of Essex, Maryland, that was originally built as a one-room fishing shack 100 years ago. But then, the hermit who lives there isn’t what you’d expect, either. Mary Zimmerer, now Sr. Maria Veronica of the Holy Face, is a bubbly widow who discerned a call to the contemplative life after her husband passed away five years ago. Having made a public profession of vows last fall, she is now one of only two canonical (or diocesan) hermits in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Margaret Cabaniss met with Sister Maria Veronica to find out what it’s like to live this ancient vocation in the modern age.

How did you discern the call to become a hermit?

Looking back, I could see that the call came a long time ago. I think the vocation is kind of like a puzzle — the Lord throws out these clues along the way, and you may or may not recognize the clues at the time.

In 1987, I made a silent retreat, and I thought the Lord wanted me to leave my husband and my son and join a religious community. And I just thought, “Well, Lord, you can tell my husband.” [laughs] When my husband came to pick me up after the retreat, the first thing out of his mouth was, “You don’t want to go, do you?” I told him no. He said, “Well, you have to come home with me, but if something ever happens to me, you can come back.” [laughs]

The Sunday after the retreat, I met a woman who was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis — the lay order of a religious community. I thought, “I need to know more about that,” and eventually I decided to become a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, a contemplative order that has its roots in the hermits on Mt. Carmel. I was a secular Carmelite for 20 years.

After my husband died in July 2006, I knew that the Lord was calling me to a contemplative life, but where? Carmelites don’t have solitaries in the secular order, but because I felt this call, I looked into other religious communities. But some have age limits; some do not accept widows. I looked into the Carthusians; I visited the Camaldolese nuns, the Visitations, the Poor Clares; but each time I thought, “This is not where I’m supposed to be.”

I prayed, “Lord, where do you want me to go? What do you want me to do?” Eventually, I met a couple of hermits in Pennsylvania, and the more I talked with them, the more I could feel my heart jump for joy. I said, “I think I’m supposed to be a hermit. Now, what do I do with that?” I had to leave Carmel, which broke my heart, but the Father General [of the Carmelite order] explained: “You can’t have your foot in two religious communities at the same time.” Then it made sense to me: Even though this is not a religious community, you are becoming a religious.

I am very sure I am not being called to any such privilege, ever (I am hoping for the privilege of Grandchildren!) but if I were a hermit, I would of course wear red, which is the best color!

Read Margaret Cabaniss’ whole piece – it’s fascinating, and an increasing number of people are feeling called to hermitage.

Then again, with the world in such a state, we need all the folks devoted to prayer that we can get!

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  • Katherine

    Eventually, I met a couple of hermits in Pennsylvania

    That is one of the funniest sentences I have ever read.

  • Gloria

    You don’t need to formally join any order or any group. Just move out of your home when it becomes appropriate to do so and downsize into a unit in a large building in an urban area where you don’t know anybody. Be cordial and greet people in the hall and elevator, but don’t invite them in for tea or coffee. You will be left alone. You days will be yours and you can contemplate, reflect, and pray all you want.

    Avoid the temptation of volunteering for activities or events in the neighborhood and avoid the temptation of thinking you need to be “useful.” For a woman, these two temptations are the greatest challenges to becoming a hermit.

    You want to remain in an urban area when you are a senior so that you are near hospitals, grocery stores, etc., and therefore can continue to function on your own for as long as possible.

  • Alexandrag

    Wonderful story. Thank you for it.

  • momor

    It is my nature to be very introverted and I can happily go days without seeing or talking to another human being. I have fantasies about deserted islands! A couple of hours talking with another person can leave me exhausted. Ever since my 30s I have felt a tug to be a hermit despite being married and a mother. I wonder about it though since it seems strongest when life is toughest and I suspect it might be an attempt to avoid the sufferings of life. Perhaps God really wants me to do the harder thing and stay in the world helping others. It is a difficult discernment to make.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I saw this over at Inside Catholic yesterday and it got me thinking. First my blessings to the good Sister. She sounds like a good soul and a loving member of Christ’s family.

    But I have a problem with the notion of hermits. I know it goes back far in our Christian roots (St. Anthony as an early example), but where exactly does it come from as it relates to being Christ-like? I maintain that Christ was extremely gregarious, the very opposite of a hermit. Christ engaged people, had a following of apostles, walk among the multitudes, had human contact thoughout his ministry, other than his 40 days in the desert. But the 40 days was not a life time commitment. One of His greatest acts for me was the washing of His apostle’s feet, an act of human contact and service. The reason his crucifixion is so poignant is because he was abandoned by the multitudes that he had so engaged. But even on the cross he engaged his two fellow crucified. Everything about Christ as I read the Gospels was an engagement with humanity. I’m not saying that a hermit is not spiritual, but it seems be removed from Christian engagement with humanity. Such spirituality seems to me to carry an element of selfishness. It may feel good to be alone, but how is that serving your fellow neighbor?

    Sister Maria and any other hermit who might be reading this, I don’t wish to offend, just to present a viewpoint. I wish you many blessings. I shall offer a prayer for all the hermits.

    [This is the old Mary/Martha debate. "Our Lord taught and healed..." "Yes, but he went into the desert to pray," "But if you're shut in the prayer must be narrow," "Or concentrated; Jesus said Mary had chosen the better way" "but look at the state of the world! We need more Marthas!" "We need many, many Marthas, yes, but if you look at the state of the world, you realize we need a few Marys too!"

    I don't expect the debate to end any time soon, but I suspect the world has always needed some people whose job is simply to pray for the rest of us, and that is why God calls them to it -- it supports us in ways we can't even realize. Beyond that, I do not know, but I am grateful that there are folks who spend time praying, while busy Marthas cannot. - admin]

  • http://www.thecafeallegro.com/randomthoughts RandomThoughts

    Manny expressed exactly what I was thinking (only more eloquently). Maybe the key is balance? Periods of solitude and prayer interspersing a life of fellowship and service. That was Christ’s model for us.

    I agree also with momor who said that the tug to be a hermit seems to come at times when life is hardest. That to me is a warning sign of self indulgence (it is very easy and tempting to isolate myself), not an affirmation of a calling.

    Sr. Maria Veronica of the Holy Face mentioned having a son. I wonder what he thinks of his mother becoming a hermit, which no doubt means she does not communicate with him nor any family he now has. I also wonder about a “calling” that came when she was still married and raising a child, that she would think God would want her to leave them at that point.

    I guess I just don’t understand the way a “calling” works.

  • http://www.thecafeallegro.com/randomthoughts RandomThoughts

    Well I should have read the entire article! I see that her son is five minutes away, and she does get to see him and her grandchild, just for limited periods of time.

    Interesting, and a highly unusual vocation.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    Thanks Anchoress for your comment to me in #5. The Mary/Martha debate did help put the issue into context. I have a little better appreciation for solitary prayer.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    RandomThoughts – I agree balance is right. As I rethought the Mary/Martha debate I would have to add that Mary was not a hermit. Christ praised her for listening to Him for that moment, not abandoning her family entirely for the desert. I’m still trying to find a comparable example of a true hermit in the Bible. I guess the closest are Elijah and John the Baptist. I guess then there is some precedent, though I still can’t feel it’s Christ-like. But then I’m a fairly gregarious person and I admit I’m looking at this through my perspective.

  • Sarah Rolph

    I can definitely see you in a situation like this, in the far future. This woman’s beauty, in the photograph, reminds me very much of your beauty–by which I mean the clear beauty of your soul, which shines from every word you write (your face and smile are also of course beautiful).

    A dear friend of mine is involved with this small hermitage in Maine, which offers retreats: http://www.transfigurationhermitage.org/index.html

    Also on the topic of hermits, not long ago I read Sister Wendy’s book On Prayer (which I found quite good) and learned that she is not in fact a nun but a contemplative. She said that when she was a nun there was not enough time for prayer!