St. Francis of Assisi's Rule for Hermitages
The life of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is well known, but his strong affinity to the life of a hermit is often overlooked because he is usually identified with his role s a preaching mendicant and founder. However, as Gregor O'Seanachain notes of Francis: "The hermit's modus vivendi, so keenly and so variously aspired to by so many in those times, was the icon, so to say, of his interior life."
From early in his religious vocation, Francis was deeply torn between a life of solitude versus a life of service. From his earliest reflections, the carceri or little cells within hermitages widespread through the Italy of his day greatly impressed him. Francis' affinity for solitary places and natural settings led him to leave the world -- to use his own phrase -- and to repair the little church of St. Damiano. At this point,and for this specific task, Francis took on a hermit's garb. Biographer Donald Spoto notes:
Hermits lived alone, following the customs of the Byzantine tradition, which included solitude, silence, fasting on bread and water, prayer vigils and, to avoid idleness, craft work. ... But their desire for solitude did not mean they turned their backs on the world completely, for they were much involved in trying to alleviate society's problems, serving as wandering preachers, aiding visitors, helping weary travelers and generally assisting the needy. (Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, p. 62)
Even in 1210, when Francis sought the approbation of Rome for his order, Cardinal John of St. Paul "tried to convince him that he should consider the life of a monk or hermit," as Thomas Celano (1200-1265), Francis' near-contemporary biographer notes, for even then Francis and his posthumous image projected the spiritual style of a hermit, or at least of a monk. In the Legenda Maior, a long monologue records Francis' irresolution:
In prayer [i.e., solitude] we purify our sentiments and unite them with the one, true, supreme God and give new strength to virtue; in preaching, however, the spirit becomes sullied and drawn in many directions and loses some discipline. ... However, there is one thing in preaching's favor, and it seems that in God's eyes it outweighs everything else, and that is that for the salvation of souls, God's only-begotten Son, infinite Wisdom left the Father's bosom and renewed the world with his example, speaking to people the Word of salvation ...
Hence, to go out into the world to preach would parallel the very act of Christ in going out into the world to preach. Yet Francis was still uncertain, and consulted Sylvester (his first priest-follower) and Clare (his first female follower), both of whom counseled preaching. So it was settled for him.
But Francis retained the value of solitude in his design of the order's activities. Between 1210 and 1216, the abbot of the Benedictine abbey at Subiaco made a gift of a carceri to the order. Documents through the 16th century confirm the existence of his carceri.
In fact, the Carceri of St. Francis was the property of the town, which in turn gave its indefinite use to the order, but with stipulations that the occupants could not cut down trees in the woods, let alone sell the premises to anyone.
The hermitage fit Francis' expectations exactly. After strenuous wanderings traversing the countryside while preaching, the friars were to go to the hermitage to refresh themselves with its solitude and silence, up to a period of one or several months according to need. For this, Francis anticipated the need for brief written guidelines. His Rule for Hermitages addressed this need.
Rule for Hermitages
The text of the rule is brief, befitting a guideline or scheme. Noteworthy is the purpose of the hermitage, the number and relationship between the brothers, and the adherence to monastic liturgical hours. Here is the translation of Paschal Thompson (1905) titled "Of Living Religiously in a Hermitage":
Let those who wish to live religiously in hermitages, be three brothers or four at most.
Let two of them be mothers and have two sons, or at least one. Let the two former lead the life of Martha and the other two the life of Mary Magdalene.
Let those who lead the life of Mary have one cloister and each his own place, so that they may not live or sleep together.
And let them always say Compline of the day toward sunset, and let them be careful to keep silence and to say their Hours and to rise for Matins, and let them seek first the kingdom of God and His justice.
And after that, let them say Sext and Nones and Vespers at the appointed time.
And they must not allow any person to enter into the cloister where they live, or let them eat there. Let those brothers who are mothers endeavor to keep apart from every person and, by the obedience of their custos [i.e., superior], let them guard their sons from every person, so that no one may speak with them.
And let these sons not speak with any person except with their mothers and with their custos, when it shall please him to visit them with the blessing of God. But the sons must sometimes in turn assume the office of mothers, for a time, according as it may seem to them to dispose. Let them strive to observe all the above diligently and earnestly.
A more recent translation is that of Greagóir Ó Seanacháin (1997):
Those who want to remain in hermitages to lead a religious life should be three brothers, or four at most; of these, let two be "mothers" and have two "sons," or one at least.
The two that are "mothers" should maintain the life of Martha and the two "sons" the life of Mary, and have a single enclosure, in which each may have his cell to pray and sleep in.
And they are always to say Compline of the day immediately after sunset. And they should make sure to keep the silence. And they are to recite their Hours. And they are to get up for Matins. And let the first thing they seek be the kingdom of God and his justice.
And let them say Prime at the appropriate hour and, after Terce, conclude the silence so that they can speak and go to their "mothers," from whom, when they want to, they can beg an alms, like little paupers, for love of the Lord God.
And afterwards, they are to recite Sext and None and, at the appropriate hour, Vespers.
And as to the enclosure where they stay, they may not allow any person either to enter or to eat there.
Those brothers who are the "mothers" are to make sure they keep their distance from people and, on account of the obedience due their minister, shield their "sons" from people, so that nobody can get to speak with them.
And those "sons" are not to speak with any person other than their "mothers" and their minister and custodian, when he wishes to visit them with the blessing of the Lord God.
The "sons," nonetheless, should now and then take over the duty of the "mothers," according to what arrangement they have come to about taking turns at intervals.
As for everything above-mentioned, let them earnestly and carefully endeavor to observe it.
The hermitage experience was intended to be temporary, with Francis establishing (or his order coming to be identified with) up to twenty hermitages. The paradigm of Martha and Mary was not unique to Francis' insight (cited, for example, in Grimlaicus' Rule in the early 900's); the paradigm effectively uses the Gospel presentation of the two sisters representing the active and contemplative lives. This model was in fact an ancient Eastern Christian practice, as in the Greek skete, and is mentioned by Grimlaicus in terms of elder and younger solitaries. But Francis takes the image further, making an analogy of mother and son in their relationship of charity and labor.
Similarly, adherence to the liturgical hours was a standard monastic practice, but Francis adopts the practice in order to offer definition and form to a temporary period of voluntary contemplation and solitude. Observation of the hours may have been silent, or at any rate very short, leaving the friar to promptly return to the quiet of the cell.
Francis' attraction to eremitism not only incorporates monastic, patristic, and desert practices but ultimate rests on the example of simplicity rooted in the Gospel. The itinerate mendicant preacher defined by Francis reflects an eremitic model parallel to the many hermit styles of his age.
Among specific sources for the topic are "Rule for Hermitages," translated by Paschal Thompson (1905) at http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/wosf/wosf10.htm; Marcella Gatti: "The Carceri: Pre-Franciscan and Early Franciscan Period" (p. 129-138), Benedikt Mertens: "Eremitism, An Authentic Element of Franciscanism" (p. 139-140) and "Rule for Hermitages," translated by Regis Armstrong (p. 142) in Franciscan Solitude, St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1995; and Greagóir Ó Seanacháin: "The Franciscan Hermit: Recluse an Open Wind (1997)" at http://www.catholicireland.net/pages/index.php?nd=3&art=447.