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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 17, 2007   •   VOL. 45, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA

Diocesan first – hermit in our midst

Bishop Allen Vigneron witnesses Sister Laurel O’Neal’s vows of poverty, chastity and obedience during her profession ceremony at St. Perpetua Church.

LUIS GRIS PHOTO

“Stillsong Hermitage” has the appealing ring of a tiny hut or cottage nestled inside a quiet green forest.

In real life “Stillsong Hermitage” is the name of a small apartment in Lafayette whose sole inhabitant is Sister Laurel O’Neal. She is a hermit — a recently professed one. On Sept. 2, Sister O’Neal pronounced her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to Bishop Allen Vigneron during a liturgy at St. Perpetua Church, making her the Oakland Diocese’s first officially recognized hermit.

With her profession, Sister O’Neal joins a small group of modern-day hermits in the U.S. Also known as anchorites, “there are probably less than 100 of us at this point,” she estimates.

During the past 10 or 15 years, this ancient vocation has been gradually reemerging as a life choice for men and women who want to live and pray in solitude, but do not wish to join a religious community.
They attend daily Mass, pray and fast, and support themselves by working as spiritual directors, icon painters, hand weavers of vestments and rugs, potters, translators, editors, writers, calligraphers, and carpenters, explained Franciscan Sister Stephanie Newell, director of consecrated life for the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, which has been accepting hermits since the 1990s.

Sister O’Neal does spiritual direction, writes for religious journals, does book reviews, paints glass and conducts adult education classes at St. Perpetua’s. She also plays first violin with the Oakland Civic Orchestra.

Sister Laurel O'Neal

Currently, Sister Newell is developing a handbook for individuals who are interested in the eremetical life.

Why this new interest in the vocation of hermit? Sister Newell said it is part of an emerging pattern — “a surge of people answering the call to a religious vocation in all of its forms including hermits. These individuals realize there is more to life than this world offers. They desire to serve others and live for God and they seek a quieter existence from the noise of information, technology and money.”

Laurel O’Neal certainly fits the description. Growing up in the Los Angeles harbor community of San Pedro, even as a kid, she hankered after a quieter existence. She had lots of friends and a busy social life, but often retreated into solitude to play her violin.

“One day, a friend invited me to go to Mass with her, and I went. I was looking for something but didn’t know what it was,” she said.

 
 

Early Church fostered
vocation of hermits

The vocation of hermit has its roots in the third century with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, groups of holy individuals who left their ordinary lives to pray alone in the wilderness, taking Jesus’ 40-day vision quest in the desert as one of their models.

St. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony of Egypt are the best known of these early hermits. Paul is credited with being the first Christian hermit, as well as the originator of Christian monasticism. He retreated to a cave in the Egyptian desert in 250 to avoid being persecuted by the Roman Emperior Decius.

St. Anthony, another escapee from persecution, organized other hermits living nearby into a semi-communal lifestyle. For most of the time, they maintained their solitary lives, but on Sundays came together for worship and a communal meal. Monastic and religious life as we know it today had its beginnings in this Middle Eastern desert setting.

The early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers wove baskets in exchange for food. In medieval times some hermits were found within or near cities so they could earn a living as a gate keeper or ferryman.

Julian of Norwich, considered one of the greatest English mystics, lived in 14th century England and spent most of her life in a small room within the Church of St. Julian, praying and writing. Thomas Merton, writer, monk and peace activist during the 1960’s, did most of his writing inside a hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky.

She found it during the liturgy. “I came away totally satisfied emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically.” She immediately began taking instructions in the Catholic faith and entered the Church in 1967.

Two years later, she felt called to be a Franciscan Sister, but had to leave the community during her initial formation because she developed a seizure disorder.

Still convinced that religious life was her path, she moved to the Bay Area and enrolled at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, graduating with a master’s degree in theology. The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley became her next goal, but the still-present seizures prevented her from completing doctoral studies there.

To support herself, she found work as a research assistant in neuroscience at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, combining that position with a chaplaincy assignment. But religious life continued to beckon, and she entered the Sisters for Christian Community in the mid-1970s.

Within her new community, however, Sister O’Neal still longed for greater solitude and deeper contemplative prayer. She felt there must be a way to live a religious vocation without community life.
And there is. In 1983, the newly revised Code of Canon Law opened the door to include the hermit/anchorite lifestyle.

For several years, Thomas Merton, the world’s most famous contemporary hermit, had been urging the Church to allow individuals to embrace this ancient vocation without having to be members of religious communities.

His own Cistercian Order in Kentucky makes such an accommodation, which allowed Merton the solitude he needed for prayer, contemplation, and writing.

The Canon Law revision resonated with Laurel O’Neal. “I thought that hermits had dropped from the face of the earth,” she said.

So she left her religious community and adopted the lifestyle of a hermit. She began doing spiritual direction as well as writing articles and book reviews.

Earlier this year Bishop Vigneron accepted her formal application to be professed as a hermit. “Laurel is going to be discovering what it is to be a hermit in the Church of the 21st century,” he said during her profession ceremony.

Bishop Allen Vigneron places a gold ring on Sister Laurel O’Neal’s hand as a symbol of her commitment to Jesus Christ as a modern-day hermit.

LUIS GRIS PHOTO

To provide structure to her spiritual life, Sister O’Neal follows the rule of St. Benedict. She has affiliated with both the Camaldolese Benedictines of Big Sur and Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor, New York.

In an essay she wrote in 1989 for the Review for Religious entitled “Eremitism: Call to the Chronically Ill and Disabled,” she defines the life of a hermit as a space to “create a new pattern which will …confront the triple specters of boredom, futility, and unfullfillment, which so terrify the modern American.” In other words, a hermit’s life says that “God is enough.”

She believes that the chronically ill and disabled are better prepared than most people to assume the prophetic role of hermit in our world.

“They witness to the fact that their lives are of infinite value not because of who they are or what they do, but because God himself regards them as precious,” she maintains.

For her public profession of vows, Sister O’Neal condensed these beliefs to a few words from St. Paul: “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” The quote is etched in Greek on the gold betrothal ring she now wears as a symbol of her commitment to Christ.

Those words “are the heart of Paul’s Christology and theology, but they are also my own personal story as well,” she said.

She wears a modified habit as a sign of simplicity, poverty and consecration, “which I think the world needs to see.” But, she points out, “I am comfortable with letting people know me in jeans as well, and, in fact, I think it is important to do this some of the time.”

 


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