The Eremitical Life
(Sheila O’Handley)

Throughout its two thousand years of evolutionary history, the Church as the People of God is the recipient and guardian of ancient and rich treasures.   Consecrated Life, in its various forms, is one of its riches.   Consecrated Life includes the monastic life of women and men, religious communities of men and women, societies of apostolic life, anchorites, consecrated virgins, and hermits or solitaries. The consecrated life of the hermit or solitary is known as ‘the eremitical life’ and has existed in the Church from its earliest beginning.

The eremitical life, given its ancient place in the Church, is once again beginning to flourish. This renewal of the eremitical life or hermit life is noted in the Second Vatican Council’s documents: Lumen Gentium #43; Perfectae Caritatis #1; Ad Gentes #18; and as well, in Canon Law, especially Canon #603. Encouraged by these teachings, Bishops with their Councils are discerning the place of the eremitical life in their respective dioceses.

The eremitical life is a gift from God to the Church, in and for the world, as a way of living the Christian life simply and joyfully. It is not a negation of life, or of the world. The essence of this consecrated life is to witness to the primacy of God - the Mystery of Life and to the Sacredness of all life. Simply stated, the hermit’s life is a faith statement that God is and that God is enough. The vocation of the hermit is rooted in the experience of knowing that she or he is loved by God. It is not an intellectual ascent but a heart-knowing, and her or his life becomes a response to, and witness to, this love.

The hermit makes a public commitment within the faith community in the presence of the Bishop to live the eremitical life, which is celibate, obedient, and simple. Embracing the eremitical life is a commitment to, and nourished by, interiority, silence, solitude, study, and prayer. The hermit is ever mindful before God, of the needs of the universal Church, the local diocese, the world community, and all peoples.

Respecting the importance of silence, solitude, prayer, study, and interiority, the hermit chooses to withdraw from society while honouring her/his place within the heart of the world, where family, friends, faith community, and the local community are a positive dimension of life. The dwelling place of the hermit is simple but moderate. The hermit may engage in a limited ministry according to her/his gifts, and to the needs of the Church, ever mindful that the primary apostolate is that of witnessing to the primacy of God’s love.                             

On February 5th, 2017, Sheila O’Handley made her commitment to the eremitical life in the presence of Bishop Brian Dunn and the faith community of Holy Cross Parish, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Sheila entered the Sisters of Saint Martha of Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1958. She ministered in this Diocese for several years before she made a commitment as a hermit in the Diocese of Corner Brook and Labrabor, Newfoundland in 1993, and in the summer of 2016 returned to the Diocese of Antigonish. She presently lives in Port Morien, Nova Scotia, supporting herself with the art of weaving, and also with gardening, and offers a ministry of counselling and spiritual direction.


This is a further reflection on the Eremetical Life: the focus will be on both its substance, and its why.

Divine Indwelling:

In John’s Gospel 15:4, Jesus is direct; he simply invites “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” This invitation is the central message of Christianity, and is offered to all. As a matter of fact, it is our given reality, our birth-right: the Divine takes up home, residence, in each human and all of creation.

This then is the essence of the eremitical life: accepting and exploring the invitation to Divine Indwelling.

Thomas Merton 1915-1968, was a modern-day hermit, and describes best this oneness with God. “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our son-ship ( daughter-ship). It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.” (Conjecturs of a Guilty Bystander)

The Archetype of the Hermit:

What is active in the human spirit when we experience the movement for quiet time, alone time, time spent in nature or with a loved one is the archetype of the hermit which is in search of Divine intimacy - onenessness with God. This archetypal blueprint is the awakening of the mystical, the feminine dimension of the human spirit which is the function of the right hemisphere of the brain.

The vocational calling of the hermit, then, is to witness to the mystical-feminine dimension of life.

The Mystical Life

The mystical life is not so much our falling in love with God as it is our experiencing that God has fallen in love with us. St. Catherine of Siena 1347-1380 highlights, “You eternal God saw me and knew me in yourself and because yo saw me in your light you fell in love with your creation and drew me out of yourself and created me in your image and likeness.” This spiritual mirroring of God falling in love, a going out of Godself toward another Creation and the human for the sake of the other is not only a spitual becoming, it is also a deep psychological becoming.

The hermit intentionally attempts to live in the dymanic of this mirroring presence of God’s love by going out of his or her self to and for others and the world.

The Experience of Being Loved.

Foundational, then, to the eremitical vocation is the experience of being loved by God.

It is personal and experiential, residing in the region of the heart. It does not reside in the discursive mind, it is the heart’s experience. It is more in line with the words of Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”.

The Landscape of the Eremitical Life

The landscape of the eremitical life, which the hermit enters into with conscious efforts, is no easy task. It involves the spiritual discipline necessary for personal growth and development, and faithfulness to the eremitical rhythm of life.

This soul work of self-knowledge requires the death of the false self, this involves addressing the unconscious. The words of Saint Clement apply here: “When you know yourself, you know God.” Or what Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians 3:17, describes as requiring “our hidden self to grow strong”. Saint Teresa of Avila 1515-1582, encouraged her sisters to linger long in the room of self-knowledge. In many ways she was indeed not only a good spiritual director, she was also a good psychologist for her day.

No one discovers the interior of the true Self, by oneself. Therefore, there is no authentic calling to the eremitical life without first:

The healthy give and take of community life.   As a matter of fact, Saint Benedict, the father of monasticism, required long periods of time within community before one entered the solitary life.

The assistance of consistent good spiritual direction, counselling, and psychological work before and during the eremitical life.

Also, Carl Jung 1875-1961, the great 20th century psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of the unconscious, describes this spiritual homework of self-knowledge as the individuation process, which leads to the true self, the Christ-self.

In this process of indivduation we are summoned by that ‘point of pure truth’ that Merton speaks of as belonging to God alone, from which God disposes of our lives.

We sense the Self, the voice of God within, calling us out of unconscious identification with social and religious conventions, out of the persona-mask we adopt for social and religious functioning, and pushing us to recognize even those parts of ourselves that we would rather deny and disown, those shadow parts of us that are confined to the unconscious.   If the shadow remains unconscious and not addresses it will confront us with evil that is both personal and collective.

Addressing these issues that emerge from the unconscious gives birth to the true Self which houses the ethical obligations of the prophetic voice. The prophetic voice is not always welcome within religious and cultural insititutations. Jung comments further: “Every individual who wishes to approach his or her own wholeness knows very well that this means bearing his or her own cross.”

The living of the Paschal mystery is not far from the life of the hermit.

The Rhythm of the Eremitical Life.

We all have our own personal rhythm - how we welcome, respond to, and live life; so also the hermit. This rhythm is succinctly stated in the ora et labora (prayer and work), and in the lectio divina (sacred reading). And this same rhythm is both nourished and supported within an environment of simplicity, solitude, silence, contemplation, study, manual work, play, joy, and festivity. This rhythm grounds the hermit in the pursuit of the eremitical vocation, and towards a consciousness of a united human family that is aware of its communion with the earth and the cosmos.