Waiting in the Tabernacle of the hermitage

Written for the Merton Journal, Advent 2020

I am a canonical hermit, originally of the diocese of Nottingham UK (professed 2006), currently of the diocese of Hallam UK:  Hermits are eclectic and catholic in nature – we each do our own thing! I write from my own experience of hermitage, though I hope there may be common themes here which will resonate more widely.

Some questions from the beginning of the penny catechism:

1. Who made you?

God made me.

2. Why did God make you?

God made me to know God, love God and serve God in this world, and to be happy with God for ever in the next.

3. To whose image and likeness did God make you?

God made me to God’s own image and likeness.                       

As we draw towards the end of this Year-of-Covid, I have been curious to notice the priorities of the Church in supporting her members and the wider populace.  Within local parish communities there has been much evidence of ongoing support for each other and for the most needy, finding innovative ways to celebrate and to support. But the ecclesial headlines appear to have focused quite specifically on the re-opening of church buildings for private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and thenceforward for the physical participation of the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharist.

When I was consecrated as a canonical hermit, I was offered the privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament reserved within my hermitage.  I gave the invitation much prayerful consideration, but eventually decided against it. My understanding and experience of hermitage is that the whole of the hermitage is sacred space; the whole of the hermitage is tabernacle, the place where the hermit meets Christ.  Hermitage is, for the hermit, the sacred space of God-with-us. This understanding and experience is a step beyond the foothills of the God-is-everywhere theme of childhood lessons.  This is the confidence that, by God’s grace, simply to embrace and live out my humanity in the place and circumstance I find myself, is the fullest possible expression of my relationship with God during my life on this earth.  

Deep within the paragraphs of Vita Consecrata (an encyclical on the consecrated life which is adopted by canonical hermits on their profession) there is hidden a quite audacious phrase.  It describes Jesus’ life on earth, his humanity, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit 2 .  

We have been taught, perhaps too often, that Jesus’s humanity is a belittling, a humbling of his deity, as if it were second-best, dragging him down to our own “wretched” state.  But if we ponder the statement above prayerfully, we can perhaps begin to trust that being human is, in and from the beginning, the most perfect way that Christ participates in being God – that Christ being the Word, Christ being human is the event of God speaking; as the encyclical states, it is “the expression” of Christ’s love within the Trinity. In the desire to most fully express the love of the Trinitarian Godhead, in the Word being spoken, Christ wondrously brought about, for Christ-self, the state of being human.  Christ is human first, before anybody else was even imagined, right from the beginning!

And for ourselves, being human is Christ creating us upwards into the ecstasy of the Trinity.  Christ’s undiminished humanity is the ecstatic love that we, and all of creation (because it is all spoken), are invited to share in our living today.  Each one of us is created in the image of Christ’s humanity – in the image of the fullness of this unbounded expression of Trinitarian love. As a hermit, I witness that I am called to make manifest Trinitarian love, through my own humanity – of Christ – in my daily life; that the call to being human in Christ, and in imitation of Jesus, makes manifest in me, too, the fullness of our relationship, in Christ, in the Trinity.  

So how does that work in practice?  The heartbeat of my hermitage is its sacred ordinariness.  It is an experience, in silence and solitude, of total immersion in the humdrum of daily life. A hermit is one who has, perhaps, become so overwhelmed by the immensity of the privilege of sharing Jesus’ humanity that she chooses to spend her whole life contemplating the mystery and manifestation of that gift in the most simple and ordinary form of living.   A hermit lives out the mystery of the Incarnation in her own body, her own blood.  A hermit says, “Christ, from the beginning of time, and in the fullness of time, chose being Jesus, being human, as the best way of expressing the love of the Trinity. Living in Christ, under the action of the Holy Spirit, and totally dedicated to God who is supremely loved 3,  I will now do likewise”.  

Because of the relentless ordinariness of her life, there is very little of worth that can be written about a hermit and her hermitage which cannot be written about every individual and community on the earth. That participation in the mystery of Christ’s humanity in Jesus is the focused privilege of the hermitage, but it is the lodestone of every human life.  The hermit inhabits the tabernacle of her hermitage, but all people wait and attend in the tabernacle of the worldChrist is close to us when we are kneeling directly in front of the Blessed Sacrament in a church, but just as close when we are sitting in the pews at the back, or standing at the boundary wall outside locked doors, or at any moment in any place when we attend inwardly to the presence of God.

Lockdown in the hermitage was not a time of greater separation, but a time of dwelling deeper within the mystery. Now, as the churches tentatively regroup and are re-inhabited, as people kneel directly in front of the tabernacle, and celebrate Eucharist together in each other’s company, we are able to express more publicly again the community which is Christ’s self-manifestation and revelation to the world.   In this time of Advent, of waiting, of expectation, and from the solitude and silence of my hermitage, I like to stand with the Church and the whole of humanity, bereaved, grieving and masked, together-yet-apart before the altar of God.  

God is with us.

 1. Opening phrases of the penny catechism.

 2. Pope John Paul II, 1996, Vita Consecrata. 18

 3. Code of Canon Law: Part III Institutes of consecrated life.  Canon 573 i

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