Posted by: Lisa | May 25, 2011

My Hermitage Experience

As I researched religious life in the Catholic Church, part of me glorified the cloistered life as the highest, surest path to spiritual perfection.  I liked the idea of being locked away from the world and renouncing material possessions and family relationships in favor of a more intimate relationship with God.

Yet part of me also wondered if cloistered life was some kind of cop out.  After all, it’s a highly unusual form of life that has very little bearing on the day-to-day reality of most people’s lives.  I wondered if cloistered monastics and hermits were just fooling themselves into believing they were on a sure path to holiness.

I visited a particular hermitage for two weeks in May 2007.  The mother superior and the chaplain picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hermitage.  During the drive, we discussed several topics, but I was surprised that the nun seemed obsessed with finding out what types of food I liked to eat.  I’d thought food was supposed to be pretty inconsequential in cloistered life.  Not that nuns don’t eat – but they’re content to eat whatever’s put in front of them.

During the drive, I also noticed the priest and nun had a certain way of bickering with each other.  I thought, “Gee, they sound like an old married couple.”  That observation should have tipped me off about the quality of life in this particular hermitage.

I spent two weeks immersed in the life of the hermitage:  going to Mass every day, following a schedule of prayer and manual labor.  I also had several long private discussions with the mother superior.  She seemed nice enough, interested in me as a person.  At the end of my visit, I asked permission to formally enter the hermitage as a postulant (a kind-of pre-novice).  Permission was granted and we made plans for me to return in August.

I rented a car (since I wouldn’t be able to have my own car) and drove over 1,000 miles to enter the hermitage.  It was fun – I love road trips – and cheaper than flying.

During the seven-and-a-half months of my stay, I witnessed many sobering incidents.  Here are a few: 

(1) Bickering about the best way to accomplish simple tasks such as moving furniture or transporting dirty dishes from the table to the kitchen. (“We don’t stack dirty dishes.”  Really?  Everybody else does!)

(2) Throwing away fresh vegetables because they were rotting faster than we could eat them. (Me: “Couldn’t we donate some of these to a soup kitchen?” Mother superior:  “We need all of them for ourselves.”)

(3) Spending money on luxuries such as frozen pizza, Subway subs, ice cream and cake. (I thought we were supposed to be living in poverty!)

(4) Gossiping about other women who had entered the hermitage, stayed a few months and left.  These women were portrayed as psychologically weak – or in some other way “unfit” for religious life. (I wonder what they say about me now that I’m gone.)

(5) Complete lack of supervision and accountability for the chaplain and the mother superior.  They made up their own rules and did whatever they wanted, however they wanted.  I’d thought religious life was supposed to be about subduing the ego and giving up one’s own preferences for the sake of doing God’s will.

Being in that place showed me that “religious” people aren’t any better than the rest of us.  The nuns seemed to put themselves on pedestals, considering themselves better than people living so-called “selfish” lives out in “the world.”  They seemed to enjoy insulating themselves from “sinful” outsiders. 

On one occasion, when the mother superior approved an outside woman to stay with us for three days on a private retreat, I was cautioned to stay far away from her to avoid being contaminated by “evil spirits.”  The priest told me:  “She’s been married for twenty years but only has one teenage son.  She’s probably contracepting and that’s a mortal sin.”  I was dumbfounded.

As I prepared to leave that place – the place I’d thought I’d stay for the rest of my life – the mother superior paid me a compliment:  “You were the best dish washer we ever had.”  I’m serious.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing such an intriguing experience! While I wasn’t surprised by what it really was like, it did sadden me. I wonder if there is any place that meets the ‘Hollywood’ expectation of a true religious order?

    • You’re right, Stephanie. That place completely shattered my illusions about religious life – to the point that I no longer believe there are any “good” ones, in any religion. Sad. I’ve heard terrible stories from other women in other orders, too. Some women stayed for YEARS so I’m grateful that my ordeal only lasted a few months.

  2. Lisa, I remember when you left Norfolk. I’ve always thought of the cloistered life as peaceful and wonderfully nurturing spiritually – I watched “In This House of Breed” (sp?) as a child, and fantasized about becoming a cloistered nun. I’m so sorry that it didn’t turn out well for you. I remember when you told me that the Mother was worried that their doctor would see your tatoo and think less of the order. Yuck. How un-Christlike. I pray there are some “good” orders out there. Maybe Tibet? Thanks for sharing your experiences. Mary

    • So true, Mary. On more than one occasion, regarding my tattoos, the mother superior said, “What would the doctor think?” I felt like saying why would he care, tattoos are part of life in the modern world. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get sick while I was there. I’m not sure she would have taken me to see the doc even if I really needed to go.

  3. […] The most recent event was in 2007-2008 when I lived in a religious community.  I’d spent nearly four years and thousands of dollars researching, contacting and visiting various communities.  Finally, I’d found one that would give me (old, divorced and imperfect as I am) a chance.  But the place turned out to be a nightmare.  The superior and the chaplain were anything but holy.  I went there to be devoted completely to God and to advance on my spiritual journey.  My hopes and dreams were blocked and stifled.  My heart was broken.  (To find out more about this, read my posts, “Curiosity Disappoints the Cat” and “My Hermitage Experience.”) […]

  4. […] the circumstances of my life to become a hermit.  (I actually did so in 2007 – with disastrous results).  If such were my true calling in this life, however, then God would arrange everything for me to […]


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