The Eremitical Life: A special vocation in the Church
The following is the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the Mass of the profession of perpetual vows of diocesan hermit, Sister Nancy Frentz, on July 11, 2016, the Memorial of Saint Benedict:
I remember many years ago as a seminarian visiting Subiaco, about an hour and a half drive from Rome. On the outskirts of the town, there is a large statue of Saint Benedict and a welcome sign that reads “Birthplace of Western Monasticism.” It was in Subiaco at the age of 17 that Benedict began his consecrated life and he began that life as a hermit. Later, many would follow him and he would found monasteries with communities of monks at Subiaco and later at Monte Cassino. But his consecrated life began as a hermit.
I remember visiting the monastery in Subiaco that was built around the original cave where Saint Benedict lived for three years as a hermit. Over the door of the entrance courtyard of the monastery is an inscription in Latin which translated reads:
“If you searched for the light, Benedict, why did you chose a dark cave? A cave doesn’t offer the light you desire. Why have you gone to darkness to seek radiant light?” The answer is inscribed: “Only in a profoundly dark night do the stars brightly shine.”
It was living in the solitude of that dark cave as a hermit that Saint Benedict was illumined by the light of Christ, enabling him to eventually go forth and to become the great Father of Western Monasticism. It was very special to me to spend some time of prayer and reflection in that original cave. There’s a white marble statue of a young Saint Benedict in the cave and also a fresco depicting a monk named Romanus who would bring food to Benedict each day, lowering a basket into the cave by a rope with a bell that alerted Benedict to its arrival.
It is good to recall Saint Benedict’s three years as a hermit today as Sister Nancy makes her perpetual profession of vows as a hermit. During those three years, Benedict was transformed through his prayer in solitude. He grew in wisdom and holiness through the Holy Spirit’s action in his soul. Sister Nancy does not live her eremitical life in a cold, damp cave and Sister Jane doesn’t lower a basket of food by a rope to provide her food. But Sister Nancy does, like Benedict’s original eremitical life, live most of her day in prayerful solitude to allow the Holy Spirit to act in her soul. We pray today that, like Saint Benedict, Sister Nancy will continue to grow in wisdom and holiness.
In the first reading today we heard a passage from the Book of Proverbs, one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. It speaks of searching for wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, like searching for a treasure. This search is important in our life, whatever our particular vocation. Yet, the hermit’s search is a witness to all of us where we will truly find wisdom since, as Proverbs teaches: “It is the Lord who gives wisdom. A person’s heart must be in the right place. The heart is the place of encounter, the place of covenant. It is where God speaks to us.”
In the silence and solitude of her eremitical life, Sister Nancy ponders in her heart the Word of God, her ears are attentive to God’s wisdom. Her life, the eremitical life, is a special vocation in the Church and reminds all of us of the importance of the encounter with God in prayer, of opening our hearts to the wisdom and love of the Lord. The heart is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of wisdom, where God’s wisdom enters and enlightens and refreshes our soul.
One of the questions that arises in our hearts as disciples of Jesus is the question posed by Peter to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “What will there be for us?” Peter was speaking on behalf of the apostles who had left their former lives behind in order to follow Jesus. Our Lord responds that in the new age they will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Our Lord is foretelling their role as founders and leaders of the Church. But then Jesus gives a general promise that applies to all of us, to all His disciples: “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”
Sister Nancy’s profession today reminds us of this promise of Jesus. Her renunciation of wealth through her vow of poverty, for example. The losses that the evangelical counsels entail bring about the attainment of something infinitely greater – eternal life. Of course, it is impossible for us to achieve eternal life on our own; we must receive it as a gift from God, just as children receive what they lack from their parents. Jesus also proclaims in the Gospels that we must keep God’s commandments in order to enter eternal life. We must live by both truths: accepting eternal life as God’s gift to us while striving to obey God’s commands, loving and serving others, denying ourselves, and taking up our crosses to follow Jesus.
The evangelical counsels and the detachment they entail help us to receive the blessing Jesus promised: eternal life. Sister Nancy’s perpetual profession today and her consecrated life as a hermit not only help her to receive this blessing, they help us and others to set our sights on this ultimate goal of discipleship. And I would add: Sister Nancy’s prayers and sacrifices for the Church, especially for our priests, are a beautiful gift and help all of us to live our vocations and ultimately inherit eternal life. As Sister Nancy prays so often for us, we pray today especially for her. May the Lord bless her with His grace, wisdom, and love! May He help her, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be faithful to her vows. Living as a hermit, may she never feel alone, but always know the presence of the Lord and the accompaniment of the community of Jesus’ disciples, the Church.
Sister Nancy, may the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint Benedict, and all the holy hermits among the saints in heaven, intercede for you today and every day of your consecrated life in the Lord!