A Brief History of Montserrat Hermits
by a friend of Hermitary at Montserrat
Probably by the sixth century there were already hermits occupying the mountain caves of Montserrat. In the year 888, a Catalan king documented the existence of several chapels on the mountain which were dependents of the monastery of Ripoll, among them Santa Maria de Ripoll, upon which that monastery was founded, and Sant Iscle, still extant in the garden of the present monastery.
In subsequent centuries, the number of hermitages and hermits increased considerably. At first, they settled at the foot of the mountain, but later they ascended the heights to caves, which later became chapels and churches venerating the image of the Virgin Mary or a saint.
By the thirteenth century, notices occur of well-known hermits. Then, in the fifteenth century, reform of the Benedictine order and the monastery itself consolidated eremitical life on the mountain. A new rule obliged all hermits to complete a year's novitiate. Establishment of hermitages was placed under the authority of the monastery prior, and hermits could be reassigned if considered appropriate. The monastery set the rules.
In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a new vow of perpetual permanence within the limits of Montserrat was laid down. To maintain the strict solitude of the anchorage, hermits could not visit or even write to anybody.
Nor did hermits always remain in the same hermitage. In general, the youngest began eremitical life at a high altitude of the mountain, descending as their years overtook them. This made easier the hermits' Sunday descent to the hermitage of Santa Ana and to the monastery itself on designated days.
The number of hermits was typically twelve or thirteen, though sometimes there were as many as sixteen. The granting of a hermitage was the function of the prior. Often aspirants had to wait seven or eight years to obtain a hermitage. Such petitions were frequently denied because it was impossible to supply the demand.
In the fourteenth century, eremitical life on Montserrat so flourished that its fame spread beyond Catalonia, and many hermits came from outside its boundaries.
The disposition of their day did not depend on the hermits. An established schedule served as a curb to individual inconsistency, fruitless ramblings, and wasting of time.
Summer and winter, at a quarter before two every morning, each hermit in turn struck the bell of his chapel, one bell answering another, until soon the sound of bells from all the hermitages broke the silence of night, stirring the inhabitants of the mountain to sanctify the new day. Then, at exactly two o'clock, the recitation of matins and lauds of the Office of the Blessed Virgin began in each hermitage, followed by an hour of mental prayer, another of spiritual reading and the recitation of the Office of the Dead.
After a break to organize and tidy their cells, the hermits recited prime and assisted spiritually at Mass (begun in the monastery proper). There followed two free hours, spent in manual labor. After praying the minor hours, the hermit lit a fire, prepared food, set his table, and ate. He then had half an hour of recreation - spent strolling about the hermitage - and an hour of siesta.
In the afternoon, from two to eight, time was occupied in recitation of vespers, in studying, manual labor, spiritual reading, and meditation. At eight, with the exception of fast days - which were most of the year - the hermit ate dinner, recited compline and, after an examination of conscience, retired about nine o'clock.
The Montserrat hermit never ate meat. He fasted consecutively for six months and during the rest of the year on Wednesdays and Fridays. He flagellated himself three times a week, and daily during Advent and Lent. He slept six hours at most, dressed and on a bed of straw. All this was governed by a rule and was therefore obligatory. However, many of the hermits multiplied these austerities.
The hermits could not leave their hermitages for more than a quarter of an hour, with the exception of some days. On Sundays, at the first hour of day, all the hermits gathered at the hermitage of Santa Ana, where they confessed, heard mass, and attended a spiritual conference by the monastery vicar, after which they returned in silence to their cells. On the feast day of the invocation of each hermitage, a Mass was celebrated in the hermitage, assisted by all the hermits. On major liturgical feast days, the hermits descended to the monastery, where they attended celebrations, but never spent the night outside of their cells. A sick hermit could be housed in the monastery infirmary or remain in his hermitage.
The monastery provided everything. Twice per week, a servant with a mule made the rounds and left in each hermitage all the necessities.
The hermitages were of different proportions and forms, due in great part to the topography. Each had sleeping quarters, a room for work and study, a kitchen, a dining room, and an oratory. They were surrounded by an orchard, a garden, and corresponding cisterns, the cisterns frequently excavated directly from rock for the purpose of collecting and holding rainwater.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the Peninsular War of France against Spain, the hermits were dispersed or killed and the hermitages burned or destroyed, as was the monastery. Subsequently, eremitical life was very sporadic. It was not until the 1960's that Father Estanislau resumed the tradition; later, when he went to Japan, Father Basili continued the tradition up to the recent present. At the moment there is no hermit on Montserrat and with the exception of the hermitages of Santa Creu and Sant Dimas, all the hermitages are completely in ruins or in a very bad state. Some have been partly reconstructed by vagabonds and transients who spend a while there, but not as anything we would consider eremitical life.