November 4, 2004
Even before the first streaks of dawn, the rooster crowed. His call even louder against a silence so unbroken you could hear a leaf fall to the ground. The Mt. Carmel Hermitage in Cristoval, Texas. What a grace to give a retreat to hermits in the desert. The hermitage rests serenely on 195 acres soaking in the southern sun. It is a five-hour drive west of Dallas and a four-hour drive north of San Antonio. A peaceful place carved out of the sheep capital of our country. Oak and cedar with mesquite trees twisting in every direction dot the parched land. Each morning when I made my way to chapel, my flashlight not only showed the narrow path, but also revealed the desert teaming with life. Insects—rotund and oblong, crawling and flying-- I had never seen in Paterson, I saw in Cristoval.
The hermits had already abandoned their bed, prayed the Office of Readings, spent another hour in prayer, followed by Morning Prayer together. I came to celebrate Eucharist with them. Here the pace of life is much different than our normal routine. No television, no radio, no traffic buzzing by, but only the much needed space to recover the rhythm of prayer and solitude so easily lost in our world.
From the beginning, the Church has been blessed with men and women who embrace the ascetical life and set an example for the rest of us. Almost immediately after Pentecost, Luke tells us that certain believers renounced their property and their homes (Acts 4: 32-35). During the very first centuries of the Church’s history, all Christians had to live separate from the world. The world was pagan. They may not have withdrawn to the desert. But they did withdraw from the pagan life-styles of their contemporaries—the sports, the shows, the religious and civil ceremonies honoring the pagan gods. Constantine’s conversion and the Edict of Milan in the 4
th century ushered in a new epoch in the Church’s history. Christians were not longer outlawed. The faith could be publicly professed. Persecutions ended. But yet there was now an even greater danger to the faith--the danger of being in and of the world. At a time when some pastors of the Church were adopting the externals of the imperial court, some devout individuals fled to the desert to deepen the interior life of faith.
The eye of the historian can easily note the contribution of such individuals.
They developed new techniques in farming. They copied manuscripts. They kept learning alive. But their greatest impact only the eye of faith will notice. Their personal union with God; their thirst for greater conformity to God’s will; their hours of prayer and liturgy and their living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience do more than serve as examples. They are the very source of spiritual energy that enlivens the entire Mystical Body of Christ. They are life for the Church.
During my week at Cristoval, that life touched me in my time with the hermits. Fr. Fabian withdrew from a very happy ministry as a diocesan priest. He had nothing more than the burning call to be part of the Church’s centuries-old monastic tradition. Fourteen years later and with a beard to match, he is not alone! With the craft of a St. Joseph and the cooperation of so many in work and materials, Brother David has helped translate Fr. Fabian’s inspiration into 12 free standing cells, a chapel, refectory, and office. And there is a gift shop as well. The hermits support themselves from the generosity of others and from hard work. They make jellies and chocolate and bread. And they raise chickens and goats. With a smile that betrays the secret of joy, Brother Martin—a young chemistry teacher fresh out of university—brings a new generation of vitality to this hidden life of the Church.
Physical labor, much prayer,
lectio divina, and hours of solitude, a routine of constant conversation with God—this is the witness of their life and their challenge to us. Our immersion in the world, one ear listening to the radio, the other on the cell phone, instant access to the news, the preoccupation with making a living and caring for our families—all of these can block out the Presence of God around us. What a gift the life of these hermits is for us.
“... [Their] search for the Absolute… suggests, as it were, a spiritual therapy for the evils of our time. Thus, it is a blessing and a reason for hope, in the heart of the Church, for human life and the very life of the Church.” (Starting afresh from Christ, 6)
And how blessed we are in our own diocese. The Carmel at Morristown, the Bethlehem Hermitage under our own Fr. Romano, the Carmel at Chester. Even the solitary example of my former seminary professor, Fr. Livosi in the shrine at Branchville—these are living proof in their own way of the strength of the eremetical life. They are light for us along the way. I know I won’t be getting up at 3:30 a.m. nor retiring at 8 p.m. And even though I won’t be hearing the grunts of a Billy goat looking for a mate, I will be looking for those desert moments to hear God’s voice in the whisper of the wind.
Through the intercession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, may we come to a deeper love of prayer and the joy of the Lord’s Presence among us.