BOOK REVIEWS: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Andrew Jotischky. The Perfection of Solitude: Hermits and Monks in the Crusader States. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

As the author's doctoral dissertation, The Perfection of Solitude is a scholarly work with a thorough bibliographical apparatus, but does not have the popular appeal that the subject matter merits. Jotischky carefully documents the evidence of monks traveling to the Crusader-held Middle East, and the Carmelites and hermits who emerged there like temporal flowers of spirituality. Here is the table of contents:

Introduction: Monks and Jerusalem
1. Gerard of Nazareth and Western Hermits of the Crusader States
2. The Character of Latin Monasticism in the Crusader States
3.Orthodox Monks and Monasticism in the Holy Land
4.The Origins of Monasticism on Mount Carmel
5.The Early Carmelites
6. The Development of the Carmelite Order in the Latin East
7. The Geography of Holiness
Conclusion

Perhaps the most intriguing topics are the rise and fall of eremitical Carmelites and the many good biographies and hagiographical accounts of hermits. But the author's focus does not permit pursuit of the history of the Carmelites nor reproduction of the many interesting hermit stories. Along the way, however, Jotischkey offers enough insights to provide good clues to the nature of eremiticism in Crusader and Orthodox lands, and these insights provide a summation of the book.

The crisis of European monasticism that began in the eleventh century was the decline of monastic spirituality in the face of growing benefices and the corrupting effect of increasing property and bureaucracy. While the Crusades were promoted by no less a monastic authority than Bernard of Clairvaux, the intended spiritual beneficiaries were laymen, not monks. The scandal of seeing monks desert their monasteries to go to the Middle East, even if for spiritual purposes, gave European monasticism the embarrassing scenario of being insufficient to address the spiritual needs of its closest adherents.

The monk renounces mendicancy and travel because his vowed monastery should be his equivalent Jerusalem, the sufficient holy land for working out salvation. As Bernard wrote in reprimand to the Cistercian abbot Arnold of Morimond, for a monk to renounce his vow of stability to go East was "a grave scandal for the whole Order." The monastic reformer Peter Damian concurred.

But the Crusades had unleashed the strong interest in biblical places, what one scholar has more broadly termed "geopiety." Official suspicion of pilgrimages and sacred places could not be contained. The emigration of monks to Crusader lands continued, and the creation of new monastic communities was bound to be seen in Europe as a challenge to institutional monasticism. The emergence of Western hermits in the Middle East only added to the dilemma of control for Western churchmen.

Westerners discovered Orthodox hermits for the first time, and though they could not readily communicate because of language, the different spirituality of eastern Christianity was a strong influence. Where eremiticism was seen as an uncontrolled eccentricity in the West, the Orthodox saw it as the culmination of a spiritual progression, the pinnacle from coenobitic life ascending in worthiness to the life of a hermit. The continued presence of hermits in Syria and Palestine reinforced the assembly of Western hermits settling on Mount Carmel.

The Western hermits modeled their lives after the Old Testament figure of Elijah, whom they saw as the first hermit. Jotischkey shows the many medieval sources which maintained this view of Elijah.

Patristic and medieval commentary celebrated Elijah as the Old Testament "type" of the hermit. Jerome discussed the respective claims of Elijah and John the Baptist to the title of "the first monk," alongside the Egyptian desert fathers Anthony and Paul of Thebes. Rupert of Dentz, in the twelfth century, described Elijah as the "author and initiator" of monasticism. To Peter Damian, Elijah was the originator of the eremitical life. Monks themselves, like the Egyptian Onuphrius, were aware of following the example of Elijah; Peter the Venerable, looking back at the generation of Onuphrius as founders, saw Elijah as the ultimate monastic founder-figure. ... Gerard of Nazareth prefaced his biographical collection of hermits by appealing to the example of Elijah.

And the list goes on: Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Comestor, Philip Ribot.

So it was logical that the first Western monks in the Middle East with an eremitical interest would want to settle near Elijah's residence. The place was already known, mentioned as early as the fourth century by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria, as Carmel. Even earlier Jewish sources knew the site. Christian hermits had been living on the mountainside for centuries, in abandoned tombs and caves. The mountain was fertile and offered good springs of fresh water.

Western monks had but to link Elijah as the precursor of John the Baptist and to link the Virgin Mary to Carmel as spiritual protector of Ejijah and grantor of his visions to find Carmel their special home.

Jotischky documents the many commentators and interpreters. He follows the origins of the Carmelites in the Middle East as an eremitical order (hermits in private cells coming together only for their liturgy) and their acceptance of a modest "rule" by Albert of Vercelli. He chronicles the overwhelming pressure from papal and Western monastic officials to curb the independence of the Carmelites, to control their eremiticism.

Basically, the order was forced to move to Europe and transform its founding principles -- eremiticism and the rejection of property -- into the principles of existing mendicant orders of "friars" -- namely, Dominicans and Franciscans, both of whom had likewise been reigned in and forced to reform. And that, in summary, was the end of the Carmelites as they were originally inspired.

Only Chapter 7 touches on individual hermits and their stories, all of which are hidden away in Latin primary sources and collections. How we should  like to read them, not, perhaps , as rich as the stories of desert fathers and mothers but offering intriguing insights of a far different generation and its attempts to follow the perennial spiritual vision of eremiticism.

Jotischky rightly summarizes the Christian hermit quest:

In widely diverging traditions, and throughout the medieval period, the solitary life was proclaimed as the consummation of monasticism, and hermits as the purest interpreters of the traditions established by Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist. The heights of perfection that could be climbed in solitude were described in similar terms by both Eastern and Western monks.

And the link from spiritual solitude to mysticism is strengthened by the shared experiences of Western and Eastern Christianity. As tenuous as the shared experiences might have been, the Carmelite John of the Cross in sixteenth-century Spain would have understood the sentiment of his Eastern counterpart, the Syrian Jacobite monk Gregory bar Hebraeus, who wrote:

When, by the hard labors of asceticism, the body has been cleansed and the mind purified, the windows of the sense have been shut and the room of the heart is enlightened, then the dove will show herself to the mind: not lastingly, however, but as a flash of lightning which appears and vanishes, she shows her beauty, making sweet her fruit to the palate.