ARTICLES: HOUSE OF HERMITS

A Protestant Hermit in Search of Inner Unity,
by Pierre Léderrey

The following is a translation from the original French of an article appearing on the Web site of ProtestInfo for the November 4-10, 2002 issue: http://www.protestinfo.ch/Articles.asp?Index=1529. Translation with permission of the author.

Daniel Bourguet is one of the rare Reform anchorites. Retired near St-Jean du Gard, the former pastor and professor of theology is also prior of the Fraternité des Veilleurs (Fraternity of Watchers). We meet him on his way to the center at Sornetan, where, once again, attention to prayer and the direct encounter with God has attracted a large audience.

Protestant hermit. A smile spreads from behind the copious beard of Daniel Bourguet. "That is what they call me. After I retired, I accepted the term. But I believe that there are as many definitions as there are people." The former pastor of a parish in southern France and professor at Montpellier recalls having felt the call of solitude with God for some thirty years. "I already sensed this concern within me before my first assignment. When the dilemma became too great, I spoke to my Church authorities about it. To my great surprise, they showed themselves rather open." There followed a year as a Trappist and another in a Dominican community.

But Daniel Bourguet chooses to remain Protestant. He has spent six years at his hermitage, a wooden hut without running water or electricity close to St-Jean du Gard. Though he has given up university teaching, he gives many presentations, some of which have been turned into books.

The time spent in his dwelling depends on the word of mouth of visitors. "One should not confuse my life with that of a recluse. My door is always open. Receiving others is as much a part of a hermit's life as is being entirely a monk."

Most visitors do not come solely out of curiosity. They tell him that they are searching for meaning or are troubled by existential questions. "They think I am closer to God. I hope so, but I guess that is why they come to see me."

To Be Rid of the Superfluous

When no one is knocking at his door, Daniel Bourguet follows a rather precise schedule "in order to avoid useless distractions that remove me from contact with God." Moments of prayer are interspersed among mundane tasks such as reading his large amount of mail. The entire teaching of this theologian is based on this centering with the Lord, a meditative state that flees worldly futilities in the spirit of the Desert Fathers.

"The search for inner unity, which is that of the monk -- monos meaning precisely that which is unified, note -- does not mean a disengagement from the world. I believe that the more one approaches the Father, the more one is open to others."

Daniel Bourguet readily employs Nicholas of Flue's much beloved image of the wheel -- in which God is the center and human beings are the spokes -- to illustrate the conviction that "I am more closely united to my brother through God." In this view, solitude leads to the direct encounter with the divine through the abandonment of material possessions deemed as so much dross.

The hermit seeks to radically overcome what pertains to individuality while seeking the fullness of a spiritual life. "It's a ceaseless inner struggle, since we are full of falsehood. One must begin with one's own heart before addressing the struggle of others." A point that reminds us that the soul is essentially a sanctuary --  as Paul puts it, "the temple of the Lord" -- turned battlefield.

Prior of the Order of Watchers

Daniel Bourguet has been prior of the Ordre des Veilleurs (Order of Watchers) for ten years.  The Fraternity was founded in 1923 by the Reform theologian Wilfred Monod, inspired by his son, the celebrated naturalist Theodore Monod. Without tangible organization or legal status, the Order is an "invisible monastery" that helps each member deepen his or her spiritual life. About two hundred people, most but not all Protestant, are connected through daily prayer across the French-speaking world.

Bourguet: "Our rule is very simple. It consists mainly in consecrating three moments of the day to meditation." No liturgy is imposed, the intent being to allow each Watcher to remain within the biblical tradition he or she finds most comfortable. Indeed, belonging to a community is one of the principles of the movement, which does not want to appear to be a new Church. "The majority of us are very active in the life of our parish," notes Bourguet.

The prior estimates that the Fraternity's impact on French Protestantism is growing. "In France, as elsewhere, theological reflection has moved the Reform away from the spiritual life a bit. After some years, we are rediscovering this aspect of the faith, and many are calling on the Watchers, especially to enrich their retreats."