MANY years ago, I wrote a dissertation examining the historical and theological significance of the hermit vocation and its resurgence in the life of the Western Church. I was, therefore, eager to read this wide-ranging collection of essays by different writers concerning various aspects of the contemplative vocation today.
The editor says that it is not a Festschrift to one particular person, but much of it is in recognition of Brother Harold Palmer, a former Anglican Franciscan friar who is now a Roman Catholic consecrated hermit. He has lived at Shepherd’s Law on a remote hill in Northumbria for more than 30 years. There he has built a hermitage for a small group of hermits, and a Romanesque church that has gained an architectural award.
The episcopal contributors are Justin Welby, Rowan Williams, and Stephen Platten. Monastic contributors are George Guiver, Superior of the Community of the Resurrection, Brother Nicholas of the Society of St Francis, and Dom Xavier Perrin, the Abbot of Quarr. Scholarly contributions are provided by Professors Diarmaid MacCulloch, Sarah Foot, and Andrew Louth, Dr Petà Dunstan, Canon Christopher Irvine, and Ralph Pattisson, the award-winning architect.
Foot, an ecclesiastical historian, writes about Northumbria’s long tradition of monks and hermits, some of whom were also priests and bishops. Thanks to the writing of Bede, we know a great deal about their lives, and how they sought to balance contemplation with action and withdrawal with evangelism. Dunstan, an expert on the history of Anglican religious communities, traces how some have evolved to live a more contemplative life.
Platten, who accompanied Brother Harold on his first visit to the ruins that were to become Shepherd’s Law, tells the story of its development and Harold’s commitment to ecumenism.
Brother Nicholas writes of the hermit tradition within Franciscanism, and Abbot Xavier writes of the importance of music within the monastic tradition, even when a hermit prays alone. Irvine and Pattisson describe how monastic architecture provides an appropriate environment for the monastic and hermit life to be lived.
Louth, an Orthodox archpriest, describes the skete, more common in the Eastern tradition where a small group of hermits live together combining solitude with communal prayer, and Fr Guiver, writing from within the Western monastic tradition, provides helpful insights into the sacramental, practical and spiritual aspects of monastic life today.
As the title Oneness suggests, this is a book about being of one mind and one heart, and how the hermit is paradoxically alone, but united through love and prayer with God and the world. Recent growth within the Church of England of the single consecrated life, and those seeking to live as solitaries and hermits, is gaining episcopal recognition; and there is support for the ever growing and varied experiments in what is described as “new monasticism”.
This is an informative and timely book as the Church discerns the renewed interest in the hermit and solitary vocation and the future of the skete at Shepherd’s Law.
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.
Oneness: The dynamics of monasticism
Stephen Platten, editor
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18