Contact Us

The Franciscan hermit: recluse in an open wind

30 November, 1999

Greagóir Ó Seanacháin OFM takes a look at the eremitic tradition as it was observed by St Francis and his followers, paying special attention to St Francis’s ‘Rule for the hermitage’.

A common image of Francis of Assisi would be of a little restless herald of good news, skipping through where people were and wishing joy and peace on everyone he met; rather as the inhabitants of the mountain town of Poggio Bustone commemorate the saint’s first ever visit to them when long ago he passed through with the cheery salutation, Buon giorno, buona gente! ‘Good morning, good people!’ In that town also, a plaque records his evangelism: ‘St Francis, on leaving this mountain in the winter of 1209, gathered his first seven companions and told them, “Go, dearest brothers, two by two into the various parts of the world announcing peace to the people.”’

Poggio Bustone happens to be just one example of a place, among numerous others, associated with the converse side of Francis’ character. He was always looking out, St Bonaventure notes, for solitary places suitable for prayer and recollection. At Poggio he and his brothers received from the Benedictines a small hermitage, perched on the edge of a precipice 2,400 feet above sea level. 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. He himself set up or was associated with about twenty hermitages, and in 1224 at the stark mountain-retreat of La Verna in Tuscany, he received the stigmata, during a period of intense meditation on the mystery of the Cross. Such hermitages were in fact his Order’s first friaries, when the originally house-less itinerant preachers came to have, though not strictly possess, any kind of habitation. Following their founder’s lead, the first friars minor sought to alternate between preaching and reclusion.

For the friars who ‘went through the world’ observing and announcing the gospel, there was already a Rule. When evangelism with reclusion had been the pattern of a dozen years, Francis was asked to prescribe some regulation specifically for the hermitages (about 1219). Extant is the precious little Rule for the Hermitage, which has proved so inspirational to subsequent and modern endeavours to experience an evangelical life in reclusion. (Reclusion, rather than solitude since there is a marked retention of the element of fraternity). The document is so concise it can be reproduced, in translation, here. We divide it into particles to highlight its features.

Rule for the hermitages
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 endeavour to observe it.

Solitude and fraternity
The hermitage experience was intended to be voluntary. Its special conditions were regulated in supplementary fashion, whereas there was an official Rule (with papal approval) which obliged the Order as a whole. Envisaged is a group of friars who are part of a larger fraternity, whose rule and life they share and whose minister they, too, obey in everything. The limited number was in line with Francis’ belief that poverty and simple living were best achieved by fewness; yet the small number was sufficient to preserve the brotherly element. Here was an infant Order’s experiment, not only in solitary prayer, but in fraternal living with remarkable interdependence. The mother/son relationship pictured for the caring hermits and those cared for is typical of Francis’ conception of the love that ought to exist in a fraternity. He wrote in the Rule for the whole Order, ‘Let each one love and nourish his brother as a mother loves and nourishes her son, insofar as God gives them grace.’

Whether permanent or temporary hermits were intended is not clear from the little Rule. We do know that figures like Blessed Giles of Assisi (one of Francis’ first companions) and St Anthony of Padua spent periods in different hermitages, and that they also interrupted their reclusion, Anthony especially, for his high-powered preaching tours.

Martha and Mary
The incorporation of the roles of the two women in Luke 10:38-42 who, in a long tradition symbolised respectively action and contemplation, accentuates the hermitage experience as a following of the gospel. It is noteworthy that the ‘Marthas’, despite their active duties, form part of the hermit group. While Francis is neither original or alone in this, he does add his own accents of humble ministration and a motherly care which he wishes to prevail in a male environment. He also echoes what he stresses elsewhere, ‘the spirit of holy prayer and devotion, to which all temporal things must be subservient.’ (Rule of the Friars Minor, c.5). The enclosure mentioned meant the space occupied by the cells which were simply ‘of clay and wattles made’ or hollowed out of the mountain tufa.

Hours of prayer
A partial impression of things Franciscan might expect, in such projects, a delightfully chaotic freedom! The life these hermits led, however, was nothing if not orderly. Everything was practically determined by the rhythm of the Liturgy of the Hours, which they very likely celebrated in common. The Office linked them not only with the larger fraternity, but with the universal Church. The Matthean text (6:33), from the context of trust in divine providence, underlines the priority of prayer over any material considerations. Rising for the midnight Office, and the careful observance of the other hours, evokes the early Christian vigilance for the coming of the master at ‘evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn.’ The rest is silence and contemplation; except for what served to remind the recluses of the poverty they shared with their brethren who, in time of need, would be begging alms from door to door when the ‘sons’ relied on their ‘mothers’ for the food they needed. Presumably, at least one of the ‘mothers’ would likewise have had to go begging for the food the whole group required.

There is no mention of the celebration of Mass or even of an oratory. Not until March/April 1222 were oratories permitted in Franciscan hermitages; and only in December 1224 came the privilege of saying Mass in them. Apart from the fact that not anyone or all of the hermits were necessarily priests, and even if we suppose they occasionally went out to some neighbouring country church, their normal regimen consisted of assiduous prayer and an experience of poverty in brotherly love.

The terms of ‘enclosure’ are strict in themselves. To maintain any real seclusion was difficult with a hedge at most, and not a monastery wall for boundary. In some matters one notices a certain ambivalence in Francis. For he wanted the friars to have a non-possessive attitude to any places they occupied, and even the hermitages were to be evangelically open to all comers: ‘Let the brothers take care that… whether in hermitages or other places, they make no place their own or guard it against anyone. And whoever comes to them, friend or foe, thief or robber, is to be kindly welcomed.’ (Earlier Rule OFM c.7). He, personally, could cope with such situations. His first biographer describes how he managed in a spot. ‘He would always look for a secret place, where he might acclimatise to God not only his spirit but each part of his body. When unexpectedly visited by the Lord in public and lacking the seclusion of a cell, he would turn his mantle into a little cell. Sometimes, having no mantle, he would cover his face with his sleeve, so as not to betray the hidden manna. He would always screen himself with something, lest bystanders became aware of the Bridegroom’s touch; thus among crowds in the narrow con fines of a ship he could pray unseen. And then, if he could do none of these things, he made his heart a sacred enclosure.’ (Thomas of Celano, Second Life, 94).


This article first appeared in Spirituality (July-August, 1997), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.