The Spiritual Theology Of The Camaldolese Hermits Of Monte Corona


" The Heremitic Life:
Encountering God in Silence and Solitude "


By Fr. Cornelius Wencel, EC   - ($14)
" In Praise of Hiddenness: The Spirituality of
the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona "


By an anonymous Camaldolese hermit   - ($9)
" Camaldolese Spirituality: Essential Sources,
Translations, Notes and Introduction "


By Peter-Damian Belisle   - ($17)

 

To order individual volumes:

call: Tel. # 928-395-8140, or
write to: ERCAM Editions, P.O. Box 365, Downingtown, PA 19335, or
contact: www.camaldolese.org


In The Wanderer (1/15/04) attention was brought to the existence of the Camaldolese Hermits belonging to the 16th c. Monte Corona congregation and who had established their presence in Bloomingdale, Ohio. My Review of the book they had published "Camaldolese Extraordinary: The Life, Doctrine and Rule of Blessed Paul Giustiniani" by the famed Benedictine scholar Dom Jean Leclerc, noted the remarkable life of the brilliant Renaissance Venetian patrician (Blessed Paul Giustiniani, 1476-1528) who would imitate the life of such ancient anchorites as St. Paul of Thebes, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Pachomius, St. Ammon, St. Isodorus, and the 11th c. St. Romuald — all of whom pursued a life of prayer, fasting, and penance in solitude and silence. Such saintly anchorites/hermits were called by the Holy Spirit to live the "solitary life"; their cell was "the desert", and their goal "inward sanctification", and in the words of a writer in the 1913 "Catholic Encyclopedia", such hermit-saints "remain one of the noblest examples of heroic ascetism the world has ever seen."

The famous "Life of St. Anthony" written by St. Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy in the 4th century, did much to spread in the West the monastic life already practiced in Palestine, Syria and Egypt. From the first centuries of the Church, there were those who preached the monastic life in its great variety of expressions, both cenobitic and eremitical. A great number of men and women were led by the Spirit of Christ to become hermits and recluses, leaving behind life in the world, seeking intimate union with God, dedicating themselves entirely to Him and "preferring nothing to the love of Christ". St. Anthony himself wrote briefly but admiringly of the hermits he inspired who even went beyond the sacrificial life of monks living in community:

"I will not speak of those who severed altogether from all sight of men, are content with bread alone, brought to them at certain intervals, and water, who inhabit utterly deserted places, enjoying intercourse with God, to whom they cleave with pure minds, most blessed with the contemplation of His beauty, the perception of which is only possible to the intellects of the holy."

Nearer to our own time, Pope Paul VI did not hesitate to comment on the perennial relevance of the charism of eremitical life for the vitality of the Church:

"From the first centuries, the Holy Spirit has stirred up, side by side with the heroic confession of the martyrs, the wonderful strength of disciples and virgins, of hermits and anchorites."
("On the Reform of Religious Life According to the
Teaching of the Second Vatican Council
", June 29, 1971, #3)

Similarly, Pope John Paul II noted the prophetic character of those who would engage in an "inward and outward separation from the world":

"..'Life in the desert' is an invitation to our contemporaries and to the ecclesial community itself never to lose sight of the supreme vocation, which is to be always with the Lord."
("Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the
Consecrated Life and its Mission
", March 25, 1996, #7)

Of great interest have been recent articles in periodicals and newspapers whose writers witness to the surprising phenomenon (if not shock) of post-modern men and women in affluent societies embracing the life of hermits and consecrated virgins! (See Newsweek 6/20/2005 with its story "Life in Solitary: Catholic hermits are reinventing an ancient tradition, living ever farther from society and ever closer to God"; and the article in the Elmira Star-Gazette 9/24/05 on women in various dioceses embracing the life of "consecrated virgin"). It is a constant theme in Church history that where worldliness and secularization threaten to make all religious life meaningless, the Triune God raises up saintly souls to teach that God is so great and so worthy of being loved that all human values, even the highest, must be sacrificed to Him. It was during the worldliness of the Renaissance and the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation which rejected the traditional forms of consecrated religious life, that Blessed Paul Giustiniani (regarded as a "second Romuald") gathered followers about him to withdraw into solitude and silence and to engage in spiritual combat with the world, the flesh, and the devil for the salvation of souls. His reform of the eremitic life in Italy resulted in the formation of the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona who presently have:

  • 2 houses in Italy,
  • 1 in Poland,
  • 1 in Spain,
  • 1 in Columbia,
  • 1 in Venezuela,
  • and 1 in the U.S. (Holy Family Hermitage in Bloomingdale, Ohio, in the diocese of Steubenville).

Adding to the great fund of information concerning Blessed Paul Giustiniani and the history of Camaldolese hermits found in Dom Leclerc's above-mentioned book, there is now available two remarkable works detailing the nature of the Camaldolese vocation and which set forth the rich spiritual theology underlying the Camaldolese hermit's special call to perfection, a call that belongs to the very essence of the Church's mission.

The first volume is "The Eremitic Life" written by the Polish hermit-theologian Fr. Cornelius Wencel, EC, with a Foreword by Bishop John Szkodon of Krakow who prays that:

"under the influence of reading it, many people will find the time and place for a desert experience in their lives. They then will not only discover God anew but will also discover the road to another person, to a husband, to a wife, to one another, to the community."

The second volume is "In Praise of Hiddenness: The Spirituality of the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona" by an anonymous Camaldolese whose spiritual conferences to his brother hermits – in the words of his friend, the Dominican friar Fr. Louis-Albert Lassus, O.P. who published them – express a profound love of God pervaded by the inexpressible joy of living deep in the heart of the Church. In The Heremitic Life, Fr. Wencel, er. Cam., who is currently stationed at the Hermitage of Bielany ("Silver Mountain") near Krakow, Poland, emphasizes that:

"the desert (biblically speaking) has always been a shelter for all those sincerely seeking the truth" and who need to find their identity in Christ. "The desert indicates a decision to leave everything that is banal, hollow, and sinful in human existence... The fervent desire for our own conversion and salvation is the first condition of going out into the desert". It is to "leave the paper world", to reject the "vulgar illusions that tempt the modern world", and to be freed from the superficialities of a "McDonald's civilization". The hermit gives himself to prayer, study of the Word of God, meditation and work in order to bear witness by means of his own conversion for the redeeming mission of Christ. His penances and sufferings are united with those of Christ and the hermit "follows His Master on the Way of the Cross" for the salvation of souls. In his solitude, however, he is not severed from the temporal concerns of his fellow men; rather he remains vitally concerned with their social concerns and his "way of the desert" does not lead to the negation of authentic values in the world or of other people. The precious "gift of tears" may be vouchsafed him by the Holy Spirit who "allows his eyes to be filled with tears when he becomes aware of the painful lack of love and faith among Christians."

Our Polish hermit-theologian stresses that the austere vocation of the Camaldolese is not for those simply disenchanted with the modern world:

"Someone who is empty cannot stand up to the emptiness of the desert... Nobody goes to the desert in order to look for prestige, acceptance, success or fame. Such reasons would quickly lead to madness or demonic possession".

The Camaldolese vocation is rather for the psychologically balanced, for those who seek union with God, the "Absolute Presence", and are "fascinated with the Lord's beauty, which becomes perceivable and clear only for a heart transformed by the power of grace". There are some wise cautions regarding the temptation to seek "the land of pure spirituality". The hermit is not a gnostic, he points out:

"Catholic mysticism has never meant contemplating one's own self... The hermit does not try to use any mystical techniques of breathing, mantras, visualizations, or the tantra... When the hermit wants to pray, he does not follow any specific procedures such as taking certain body positions, regulating his breath, or purging his mind. His method of prayer is not to have any method at all. He closes the door of his cell and begs God for the gift of the Word and the Spirit that would enable him to perceive in faith the merciful and simple presence of the Father."

Fr. Wencel notes that "It is essential that the hermit have apart from his practical experience of faith, the gift of wisdom and a sound theological knowledge of the spiritual life". The hermit's day is full. It consists of prayer, meditation on the "lectio divina", cleaning, preparing meals, receiving guests, perhaps giving spiritual direction, taking a walk, chopping wood.

Our author has written a veritable "Vademecum" (handbook or manual) for the Camaldolese hermit and has explained with some splendid spiritual insights the special nature of such a vocation. He fully justifies the judgment found in the Church's official documents on Religious life that:

"The Church without hermits would have been, in a certain sense, incomplete and would have lacked the special presence of people devoted to one idea, which is searching for God in prayer, solitude, and total simplicity of heart."

The second volume entitled "In Praise of Hiddeness" by an anonymous Camaldolese hermit constitutes some beautiful conferences on the spiritual life by one who is clearly experienced in a life "all hidden in God". A reader will find more concrete details concerning the nature of the "spirituality of the cell", observances in the hermitage, and of the nature of contemplation, of continual prayer based on "compunction of the heart". There is emphasized "the enormous difference between Christian contemplation and non-Christian Eastern spirituality". He draws upon the rich spiritual teaching concerning the "following of God with an undivided heart" found in the writings of the 11th c. Cardinal-Hermit St. Peter Damian and the founder of the hermits of Monte Corona, Blessed Paul Giustiniani (that "second St. Romuald"). He explains that membership in the family of Saint Romuald expresses itself "among other things in fidelity to certain exterior signs, the habit, the tonsure, the beard, but above all in the love of our traditions, of our Rule, and of our observances, and especially those of poverty, chastity, and obedience". There are some all-too-brief references to the fascinating figure of the Camaldolese recluse Sister Nazarena who lived in Rome (however, a biography of her is now available from the address above).

Though both volumes will be of particular interest to those seeking to be acquainted with the hermit life as refined by St. Romuald and presently lived in imitation of Christ as another "sign of contradiction" by the Camaldolese hermits of the Monte Corona congregation, laity will find them spiritually profitable as replete with theological wisdom (ancient and modern) and containing an inspirational quality which can not fail to stir in every heart the desire for holiness.

A third scholarly volume dealing with the Essential Sources of Calmadolese spirituality provides an additional intellectual and spiritual feast concerning the "Romualdian world" which gave rise to the Calmadolese charism in the Church. In this volume containing some excellent translations by Peter-Damian Belisle, one is transported into the world of medieval hagiography as one can read "The Lives of the Five Brothers" by St. Bruno-Boniface of Querfort (c. 1008 A.D.); "The Life of Blessed Romuald" by the great Gregorian reformer and Doctor of the Church St. Peter Damian (+1072); the latter's remarkable "Letter 28: a Commentary on 'The Lord Be With You'" explaining how a solitary can represent the Mystical Body of Christ; and the writings of the first priors of Camaldoli (11th and 12th c.) on the Constitutions of the congregation and describing in detail the life of the hermits of Camaldoli.

Thanks must be given the monks and oblates of Holy Family Hermitage for making these works available to all those interested in the religious, monastic, and heremitical life which are among the greatest treasures of Holy Mother Church.



About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage