Awhile back I stumbled onto a short comment by Jerome that really opened up the world of hermitism or what would later be called in the East, “idiorrhythmic” monasticism. It is what the Desert Fathers practiced in the beginning of this way of life, which would be later rejected by “traditional” or “authentic” monasticism in lieu of community based expressions like actual monasteries. Personally, I’ve struggled for a long time with “imposter syndrome” simply because I was not attached to any kind of established order nor took official vows, not to mention I held to a protestant theology (though not necessarily evangelical) which did not help at all.

But Jerome, in his argument against Jovinian, who was a protestant precursor, made a passing comment about him that I found incredibly intriguing. So, let’s take this post to explore just what this early Church Father said about this particular heretic (I mean this in the nicest way), and how it might apply to me and other hermitic religious people in modern day….

Who Was Jovinian?

Not much is known about Jovinian. In fact, nothing really about him survived – not his own writing, not writing about the details of his beliefs – the only thing that survived were two documents written by Jerome that outlines the doctrines Jovinian supposedly held that went against prevailing orthodoxy of the day.

Of those beliefs, Jovinian thought it was ridiculous that the Church and Christians saw the state of celibacy was held in higher esteem than marriage. He saw them both the same. He also had a very low opinion of ascetic practices that was popular in monastic circles. He was a critic of the perpetual virginity of Mary and he was a bit of an epicurean when it came to food and other worldly comforts. He believed in repentance of sin after baptism as well as a form of eternal security. He disowned the idea that works had any kind of salvific merit and seemed to think that there were no rewards in heaven other than heaven itself (or our entrance being granted by salvation). He argued for an equality among believers here on earth, that the Holy Spirit indwells all believers, and held to a “faith alone” justification.

But, despite these views, we find from Jerome what I consider the most intriguing description of Jovinian, that he was not only a “Roman monk” but he was actually better considered a “solitary,” in that he “took [a] private monastic vow without entering any order or monastery.”

Apparently, regardless of his more proto-protestant theologies, Jovinian lived a rather devote and chaste life. Though, unfortunately, that’s about all we know about him or his way of life. Of course, Jerome’s account is quite salacious, even Pammachius, the man responsible for point Jovinian out to Jerome in the first place, thought Jerome’s response was excessive and maybe even abusive.

Here is the exact quote from Jerome:

“393 (1) Jovinian. Jovinian was a Roman monk or, rather, solitary (for many took private monastic vows without entering any order or monastery) who had perceived the danger of degrading the ordinary Christian life which lurked in the profession of asceticism.”

Monasticism in Jerome’s Day

Now, the timeframe for Jovinian was in the 300’s AD. It is claimed he died in 405 AD, but from what exactly remains unclear. There are entries in Jerome’s work, especially the biographical segments, that paint a very vivid picture of monastic life at the time. Jerome was certainly no stranger to asceticism or being a hermit. He spent time living in caves and in small huts. He joined various communities off and on as he moved through areas, after he had been chased out of Rome on accusation of impropriety with the widow Paula. Interestingly enough, she was a very wealthy and high born woman who became a kind of pupil of Jermone’s. She funded his stay at monasteries and even founded a convent and monastery for them once they settled in Bethlehem.

It was the prevalent view at the time that to advance along a spiritual path one needed to practice self-denial. This included food reduction (which in turn lessened sexual desire), often included not sleeping, denying oneself any kind of earthly pleasures or comforts. Apparently by this point catholic dogma such as Mary worship was already becoming widely established.

It’s important to note that not all the techniques or tactics of the desert fathers before this time I would consider beneficial. I think it would be harsh to say they were heretical. But I would argue they were many extra-biblical practices at the time, as there are even today (Christmas, modern churches, pastors, the entirety of the evangelical sub-culture). There are accounts from those individuals who went out into the wild places to find God where they would not bathe and had bugs noticeably crawling in their teeth. They saw self-denial as part of their core theology (which is now termed desert theology) and was a principal way by which one drew closer to God.

In actuality, it is true that we are called to deny ourselves in our Christian walk, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).

Later Idiorrhythmic Monasticism

In an overly simplistic summary, monasticism started with the desert fathers, within a few hundred years morphed into monastic communities that has since ebbed and flowed between the extremities of solitude and community. There are different expressions of monastic vocation, from the extroverted friars that live out in the community and preach and teach and are active in society to the reclusive (yet still communal) Carthusians, to the hermit monks who live in tiny shacks on the cliffs along the shoreline of Mount Athos in Greece.

It was actually at Athos in the late Middle Ages to early modern era that saw a shift in monasticism away from traditional cenobitic expressions, where there lived a community of men together in a monastery with an abbot who had final authority over monastic life, to a kind of hybrid between communal living and self-regulation. I was actually surprised to discover this expression, though it has since all but vanished from Mount Athos by the 20th century, and was most likely fostered in error in the first place.

But, I have found it quite fascinating that there were monks, often wealthy individuals who had both land and financial means, who desired the monastic vocation but did not desire (for one reason or another) to part with their estates or autonomy. Often residing in a monastery complex, these individuals retained their financial independence, paid for their own expenses, sought the abbot or elders for spiritual guidance but not under any form of compulsion to abide by their wishes.

This, of course, harkens back to the first monks of the Egyptian desert, who had no real hierarchy, no official “blessing” from any church organization or clergy, but under personal conviction of the Holy Spirit, fled society to the fertile grounds of the wild places. They took up residence in caves, or built small shacks. Sometimes they would gather together in twos or threes and build small sketes with a few small cells positioned on a property or within a walled compound with a central chapel.

After some more research, I realized that this independent expression was pretty much already represented in monasticism throughout the centuries. If not the desert fathers in the first few centuries of the church, or individuals like Jerome who was funded by a wealthy female convert as he moved from one eremitical group to another, or the pillar saints, or the anchorites in the Middle Ages, the Idiorrhythmic monks on Athos, or the modern hermits of today.

As I mentioned above, there was even a seemingly popular tendency for those seeking a monastic life to undertake such without actually joining an established community. “…for many took private monastic vows without entering any order or monastery…”

If this was possible then, it is certainly possible today.

The Call to be a Solitary

One individual I read in an online forum stated that anyone can claim to be a religious hermit, even though they have jobs and watch tv and use the internet. Personally, I find this critical view a little shortsighted. After all, no one is 100% right about anything in this life. We all seem to get hung up on particular doctrines or traditions, we tend to easily slip into group think and view change from the outside or the inside as an inherent threat rather than what it is – change. I witnessed the same kind of “traditionalism” in the martial arts as I do in the church.

I have to admit, joining a community of monks somewhere out in a rural area does seem attractive. The idea that I would not have to worry about affording expenses, and could embrace my calling undivided has often led me to the internet in search of a community. But, if I’m honest with myself, not only have I been blocked at every turn in those searches (either there is no practical way to get there, or I’m disqualified by denominationalism, or the monastery in question shuts down, etc), but I’m really in no position to ask an existing community to take me on given my poor health conditions and medication requirements. Likewise, whether it be by accident, stubbornness on my part, or divine will, I am in a position where I have funds to live off of, currently have a wonderful part-time job that affords more than my needs, I have property in the woods that is nearly perfect to test my vocation on as a monastic hermit similar to Jovinian or Jerome or even Saint Anthony.

The truthful answer is, it really doesn’t matter if others do not consider me to be an authentic monastic or solitary. It doesn’t matter that I don’t belong to any formal order or monastery or earthly church. What matters is that I step out in genuine faith in Christ, following my conviction with the assurance that it is a call from God and not just my personal disposition or some psychological ailment.

Let’s face it. Few people actually heed the call of Christ. But, even he said, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matt 19:11). There are many, many more in the Bible who were married and who lived in the established society than there were who lived out in the wilds and who denied themselves the physical comforts of the world and society.

There is also, as I’ve already mentioned, a significant distinction between being a religious solitary and being a misanthrope or a generally disagreeable personality who tends to do better on their own. Faustino Barrientos, who lives 25 miles from his nearest neighbor in Patagonia answered the question “Why do you live alone?” with “life seems to be better when you’re alone.”

I certainly am the latter. How much of the former I am remains to be seen. And how much of this will be subjugated or suppressed if, indeed, God does bring me a wife at some point in the future – I have no way to tell. These kinds of questions are not really healthy to dwell on, since there really is no way I can hasten his perfect will. All I can do is accept and embrace the state of life that I’ve been given today, which is to be single, to be celibate, to be undivided in my devotion to God. But, even if he were to bring me a helpmate that was truly comparable to me (and I’m rather skeptical that this will actually happen given my personal requirements for a spouse in this morally eroding age we live in), she would certainly also need to be a solitary as much as I am. One who thirsts for his Word on a daily basis, who would enjoy being alone with just one another person for long periods of time – days, weeks, maybe even months at a time. Someone who does not want to work out in the world, who does not see a benefit but actually sees the harm in having too many things, and too much money. Someone who either sees the intrinsic benefit of having a home that is completely paid for (even if it is a tiny 800 square foot shack in a sleepy coastal town), that would need a few years of work to remodel it – someone who would want to remodel it with me. Someone who would be thrilled to make a home for the two of us, who would be a friend and a confidant, who love God more than she loves me (but I’m a close second), who is not riddled with insecurities or trauma from childhood, and who does not have an unhealthy attachment to her family.

Personally, I have my doubts. Not that God couldn’t do this if he wanted, but, to be honest, I think he would spare me the handwringing that naturally would come from the pitfalls, risks, and realities of the modern married life.

It is a Choice we are Free to Make…Sort Of

These kind of choices – to be celibate and a solitary, or to marry – they are a freedom each of us has to a point. As Paul stated, “you are at liberty to be married to whomever you wish, but only in the Lord…let him do as he wishes, he does not sin; let them marry” (vs 36, 39). Yet, at the same time, Jesus concluded, “Not all can accept this, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matt 19:11).

So, we’re kind of pitted against two ideas here. Free will, in that we are free to marry as we so choose (within some limitations), and yet, it’s possible that we were never meant by God to marry in the first place, but were predestined to walk a life of singleness and in undivided devotion to God.

Part of me thinks, personally, God is protecting not only me from myself by keeping me from remarrying, but he might also be protecting someone else who would be willing to marry me. My first marriage was no picnic. It was, actually, a miserable endeavor that was fraught with pain, emotional stress, confusion, misunderstanding, lies, deception, disingenuousness, and an utter lack of self-sacrifice. My wife and I both were quite selfish people, and I was pretty naive to think that God would protect me from the realities of marrying someone who did not have a very long track record in the faith (not that this is any protection). And, even when I beat myself within my own head about the errors I was responsible for that caused the failure of our relationship, I seriously wonder if there was anything I could have done differently that would have changed the calculus of the situation for my wife? If I had been more attentive. If I had not assumed as much as I did. If I had considered who she was and what she was actually feeling rather than just assume God would address whatever was wrong with her.

Personally, I don’t think I could have done anything different that would have saved our marriage (meaning, regardless of what I changed or did differently, she still would have been unwilling to confront the trauma from her past). But, despite this reality, why would God burden yet another person with the train wreck that is me and my life? Why would he subject them to my insecurities that I took on through childhood and failed to eradicate or work through as I entered adulthood?

Only time will tell.

I know, this time around, I do not want to settle at all. I don’t want to compromise on my requirements for a spouse or what I would consider a godly woman and biblical wife. And, as God instructs us to do, I graciously, humbly make my requests known to him and then I leave it at that, trusting in him that he will work out his perfect will in my life as he sees fit (since I know that whatever he does in the end is actually the very best possible option and benefit for me).

I move, plan, and prepare as if I will be single since I am currently single and this is the state in which he has called me to. I’m going to resist the temptation to sign up for online dating or try to ask people out (I would call this fishing) or join a singles’ group at a church (because I would not be aligned with the purpose or existence of said earthly church organization) because this is the kind of thing I did last time when I met my first wife.

No thank you.

God is in control of my life. I know he is because I surrender my life to him daily. I have let go of virtually every human desire I’ve had in life, even to have a wife and be married and raise a family and be a writer and become a millionaire and the whole lot of it. If this means I am sacrificing a potential future with someone since I’m not willing to “go out and find her” then I would gladly remain single the rest of my life. I’m not interested in playing these worldly games.

Some certainly say that when I approach the last moments of my life, I could look back and see that I’ve wasted my life in singleness and solitude, because I never “got out there” and never “made myself available.” But I disagree. It is true that if I die and cease to exist and in this life only I have hope in Christ alone, then I am, as Paul said, “we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Co 15:19). But, even in this, I would argue that no one should pity me. If, at the end of my life, I breathe my last breath and realize with the severity and finality of existence that I have spent my life living the most authentic version of myself that I could possibly live, living alone, separated from a system and a society that I have so little in common with to begin with, that I have drawn so close to my creator, to a diety that even if he does not exist external from me, he does or at least did exist internally within me and within my own mind for the duration of my short, brutal life on this godawful planet.

But, I, personally, have faith that God is real, that he does hear my prayers, that he knows what is best for me, he knows what limits I have, he knows my hurts and my pain and my longings. I am convinced that his word is truer than any other truth thing, that he will (and already does) guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus as I lay at his feet my hopes and my dreams and my yet unfulfilled and unrealized aspirations.

There has been, thus far – not marriage, not childhood, not running businesses or making money or working – that has felt as complete and perfect and as natural for me as living a solitary life has. And as I struggle with laziness and seasons of depression and fits of rage and the constant mismatch between the concoctions in my own head and what actually transpires in real life, I continually lay at the feet of my King all my frustrations and failures, believing that he will make right those things that I have screwed up so terribly.

What does the writer say? “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Pr 16:9) and “the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and He delights in his way” (Pr 37:23).

I trust in whatever he will do with me, for he “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11) and “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Ro 8:28).

Conclusion

I’m not saying in this post that a pre-cenobitic monasticism is better necessarily than a community based one. But, what I am saying is that, all things being equal, given my own personal disposition, predilections, tendencies, and my own convictions concerning how I believe I have been called, a non-cenobitic monasticism is definitely the best expression of a vocation I can find for myself. I, personally, am convinced that God has called me to a solitary life, independent of any monastic order or monastery or denomination.

Until my next post….


Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.


Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.


Excerpt from Ashen Monk Mountain:


There was an old elm tree near the end of the lawn, with a circular picnic table and several short benches.

“This looks like a lovely spot,” Mr. Eckey said, taking a seat.

He set his briefcase on the picnic table and flipped the latches, opening the lid.

Christopher took a seat opposite him and removed his hood, folding his arms in front of him.

“I have a tablet and a pen here somewhere,” Mr. Eckey said. “I had it when I left, that is. Not sure if I can find it in this disorganized briefcase of mine…”

He chuckled at himself.

“So – ”

Christopher ran a hand over his short cropped scalp.

“I’m confused about all this. I’m not sure I understand why exactly you wanted to meet with me.”

Mr. Eckey nodded.

“How long have you been a novitiate here?”

“Going on seven months now.”

“Hmm…and…”

He glanced up at Christopher as he fetched his notebook and ink pen.

“How are you liking it at Saint Joseph’s?”

“It has been – ”

Christopher thought about the question for a moment.

“ – wonderful.”

“I would assume it much different than – ”

Mr. Eckey flipped the first page over, scanned handwritten notes he had on the second page.

“I received some background from the Precept’s office, as well as from Abbot Greenly. You grew up in – North Platte, Nebraska? Is that correct?”

 Christopher nodded.

“I’m native of the Boston area myself,” Mr. Eckey said. “Tell me a little about how you came to the decision.”

“The decision?”

Mr. Eckey smiled.

“To become a monk. It must have been quite a journey from Nebraska.”

Christopher shrugged.

“Not really. I guess. I just – ”

Unwanted images flashed through his mind.

Mr. Eckey took a deep breath before speaking again.

“Mr. Ward, I don’t actually know a whole lot about this request, to be perfectly honest. As you know, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Apostolic Life – that’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it – we are entrusted with monitoring abnormal behavior among those called to the consecrated vocation.”

He tapped his pen on the tablet.

 “Tell me, what do you like about Saint Joseph’s exactly?”

“It’s the – well – I feel at home here. Like I belong. I very much enjoy the silence.”

“Yes, I know the Trappists to be quite ardent in their devotion.”

Christopher nodded in agreement as Mr. Eckey took a few notes.

“I enjoy the early mornings, the worship, the offices. The undivided devotion.”

“To God?” Mr. Eckey asked.

“Yes,” Christopher said. “Exactly.”

The stranger focused on his notes for several seconds, silently mouthing the words he wrote.

“Tell me, how does your life now differ from your previous one?”

“Previous?”

Mr. Eckey stopped writing.

“Your military career.”

“Oh,” Christopher said, looking down. “I guess – I – I don’t know. There are lots of differences. I’m not – sure I – what is this inquiry about exactly?”

Mr. Eckey put his pen down.

“Mr. Ward,” he said. “The Vatican apparently has interest in your particular gifts and abilities for a – call it – a special appointment. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”

He shifted his weight on the hard bench.

“Normally, the Congregation does not get involved in appointments or a particular monk’s vocational choices. But, sometimes, when the need arises, special arrangements can be made.”

“Are you talking about another monastery?”

“Actually – ”

Mr. Eckey picked his pen back up.

“It’s an entirely different Order.”

Christopher leaned forward as a gust of wind billowed the long sleeves of his tunic.

“I don’t really understand,” he said. “Are you saying the Vatican wants me to move to a different monastery – to a different Order? But…I…”

Mr. Eckey waited a moment.

“Tell me, Mr. Ward, about your military training.”

“What about it?”

“Your experiences. You were a special operator, is that correct?”

Christopher shot him a quizzical look.

“How do you know that?”

“You were part of the 7th SFG? Assigned to operations in Afghanistan for the majority of your enlistment, surrendering your commission as a Captain. Is that correct? What did you like or dislike about your military career? Why was it you left?”

Christopher looked out over the cornfields in the distance.

“Sir,” he said, wringing his hands together. “I don’t really understand why you’re asking these kinds of questions. To be honest, they’re making me a little uncomfortable. I think I – ”

“Please, Brother Christopher,” Mr. Eckey said, putting up a hand. “I don’t mean to pry. As I said, this is a peculiar and rather sensitive situation, not at all normal procedure. So, I do apologize for my rather tactless approach. Let me explain a little, if I can – ”

Christopher tried to relax.

He struggled to repress the memories rising in the back of his mind, the bloody and gruesome images of dead bodies, a horrible, yet all too familiar wave of fear and dread washing over him.

A wave of putrid death enveloped and permeated everything.

He took a deep breath, tried to ignore it.

Mr. Eckey put down his pen again.

“There is a remote monastery in British Colombia. It is of a separate Order, not Cistercian, but similar. It’s rather distinctive, as I am led to believe.”

“What is the Order?” Christopher asked.

Mr. Eckey shook his head.

“You would not be familiar with it,” he said. “There is actually only one monastery in the Order. But it has had a long, and quite fascinating history, to say the least. And, somewhat of a fantastic service.”

“So, why me, then?” Christopher asked. “I’m a novitiate. I don’t have much to offer. I’m not sure what you are asking of me.”

“The Vatican is asking a favor of you, Brother Ward. They are requesting that you take a leave of absence from Saint Joseph’s and visit this other monastery for a time.”

“I’m – I don’t – ”

Christopher stammered.

“I’m honored that the Vatican has called on me,” he said. “I really do feel settled here, though. I would not wish to – ”

Mr. Eckey interrupted.

“Consider it simply a sabbatical of sorts. Without strings attached. We are interested solely in God’s working here in this matter.”

“Are you wanting me to relocate?” Christopher asked.

Mr. Eckey smiled.

“How about we say the Vatican is open and interested in the Father’s call on your life. We simply wish to – test the waters – see if this would or would not be a good fit.”

“So, if I go, and it is not a good fit?”

“Your place here at Saint Joseph’s would be available to you at any time you see fit. Like I said, no strings attached.”

“I would not feel comfortable going without Abbot Greenly’s blessing,” Christopher said.

“You have it,” Mr. Eckey said, his smile widening.

Christopher said nothing.

“Think of it as a vacation. Though, if I’m hearing you correctly, you really are in no need of one. But, then again…. ”

The man shrugged.

“May I – ”

Christopher pondered his words.

“Is it possible to consider this awhile before I decide?”

“Certainly,” Mr. Eckey said. “Because of the situation, though, we would need you to go sooner than later. Is there anything upcoming that you are thinking about in particular?”

Christopher shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I would just like to sit with this for a day or two. Pray about it. How long would the visit be?”

“As long as you need to decide,” Mr. Eckey said. “Preferably a month to start. Longer is encouraged. Like I said, it is a unique situation, so tradition does not really lend itself easily. But, I would ask – ”

He put his notepad and pen back in his briefcase and closed the lid.

“Because of the sensitive nature, the Vatican has requested that you do not discuss this with anyone except me. Not the other monks here, your family, not even Abbot Greenly.”

“But, how – ”

Mr. Eckey put up a hand.

“I’m heading back to discuss the situation with Abbot Greenly before I leave the grounds. He will certainly not have an objection. Not that I can imagine, anyway.”

He fished out a business card from the inside pocket of his blazer.

“Here is my contact information,” he said, handing him the card. “You can reach me on my cell phone any time. Whenever you decide, one way or the other. There is a great need, though, so I do hope you will consider at least visiting.”

Christopher took the card, looked at it, then looked up at Mr. Eckey.

“What kind of need, exactly?”

The man just smiled.

“All in due time,” he said. “Just let us know as soon as you are able.”

Christopher looked back at the card.

“I will.”

“Thank you, Brother Ward, for your time. I do think I can find my way back to the abbot’s office from here.”

He briefly looked around the grounds.

“I do envy you a little,” he said. “What a majestic space you monks have created here. It’s like a slice of Eden. Really.”

He got up, shook Christopher’s hand, then left him there alone, as the stranger retraced his steps to the abbot’s office.

Christopher took a deep breath, then sighed.

The wave of putrid death still lingered as another wind gust blew across the fields, dredging up memories he would have altogether wished could have remained buried, soaking him again in the blood of the past.

He stayed there for a long time, just watching as the endless sea of cornfields waved in the winds.


Buy my book Ashen Monk Mountain to find out what this cryptic and mysterious appointment is the Vatican is asking Christopher to take on. An unheard of monastery, hidden deep in the Canadian Rockies? A secret mission and call? What in the world could be going on?

Click here and grab your copy today! Whatever you do, don’t let this fantastically epic story get away!

But, trust me when I say, you’re not going to believe the truth even when you discover it for yourself. Find out what secrets lay hidden underfoot at Ashen Monk Mountain!


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