By Peter Rosengren
Laura Meyers is a retired media studies academic with a love of art, an impish sense of humour – and a desire to be free of almost all human company.
The former Edith Cowan University lecturer is not, I hasten to add, someone who dislikes the human race to the point of turning her back on it in disgust at its general unpleasantness; quite the opposite.
Instead for approximately twenty years she has been living in modest suburban settings a relatively rare vocation in the life of the Church, one which stretches back to Christianity’s earliest times. She is a hermit.
This is how Laura and I come to find ourselves chatting in the loungeroom of a nondescript suburban home about, of all things, the eremitical life.
On the outside it may seem just like any other urban residence in a typical Australian street, but the inside of her brick duplex residence is filled with books on the spiritual life – although she’s currently giving away almost all of her library – and paintings on stretched canvases. Her great passion outside – or perhaps because of – the vocation of solitude and prayer, is art.
There are also mosaics leaning here and there against walls. Apart from painting, Laura creates mosaics using cut glass shapes until the finished icon created in the Byzantine tradition emerges from the seeming anarchy of the artist’s work bench standing outside the back door just feet away from her other passion – a beautifully maintained garden.
On Wednesday November 5 she will take permanent vows as a hermit before Archbishop Barry Hickey at Our Lady of Grace Church in North Beach.
When she does she will be the first permanently professed hermit in a long time in the Archdiocese of Perth, perhaps the first ever.
The permanent vows she will take (the evangelical counsels of poverty chastity and obedience) will be the culmination of a lifetime’s searching that has led her to many places but which she clearly remembers as having started at the age of five when she experienced something unlike anything else in her life – a clear and inspiring experience of the presence of God.
“The Presence is awesome, but not threatening. And you know this is the way you’ve got to go,” she says simply. “You’re still a kid, but it knocks you right out of your childhood.”
It meant that from then on she could not live the life of any other typical child growing up in the American Midwest; her youth, she tells me, was full of experiences such as raiding parish priest’s libraries in order to devour spiritual reading or heading off somewhere to be by herself with her thoughts.
She remembers the experience clearly but, just as St Paul was unable to describe the experience of someone taken up into the third heaven in his second letter to the Corinthians, human language simply fails to describe it adequately.
“It’s hard particularly when you’re so young you don’t know how to describe it even to your own self. But you want to keep going back to that same place.”
That experience clearly marked Laura out for life and also set her on her life’s trail. From then on she knew she had to search until she found what she was called to.
“I was the person who was always spending my summer going off to the woods, to live in a cottage so I could pray, think and paint,” she says of her later adult life.
A turning point came in the 1960s when she returned to the US after five years teaching abroad.
In Ohio she met a priest from Nova Scotia who introduced her to Baroness Catherine De Hueck Doherty, a Russian who had fled the October 1917 Revolution to Canada and who was to become a best-selling author of many spiritual books.
It was the Baroness, a convert to Byzantine Catholicism, who introduced the subject of ‘poustinia’ to the Catholic Church, and in so doing aided a rebirth of interest in the modern eremitical vocation.
‘Poustinia’ is the Russian word for the small cottage or building, a hermitage, in which an individual goes to pray and fast in the presence of God.
But what do hermits do? The chief way a hermit lives out his or her vocation is to immerse himself in a life of prayer and solitude as simply as possible and attend to the Presence – ‘the Presence’ meaning, of course, God.
Even now, in the contemporary mind the hermit is seen as something of a superheroic figure, a seeker into the heart of the ultimate mystery, a spiritual traveller or athlete. It is, unlike some other things in Christianity, still a deeply popular if somewhat romanticised concept for the modern mind unaccustomed to deep introspection on almost anything at all.
Characters such as Obi-wan-kenobi or Yoda from the popular Star Wars movies are modelled on something very much like the traditional Western Christian model of the alone, but self-sufficient, hermit.
One who has taken vows of the kind Laura will take before Archbishop Hickey places himself or herself under obedience to the Bishop of the diocese in which they live, and lives according to a Plan of Life.
The plan covers things such as prayer, spiritual reading, regular visits to a spiritual director, fasting, and frequenting of the Sacraments that the hermit will make the pattern for the rest of his or her life.
All of these are governed by Canon 603 of Canon Law, which also says a hermit should support himself or herself by work. For Laura, who often gives away her beautiful flowers and who is planning to exhibit her art in the North Beach parish soon, both the painting and gardening are her chief forms of work.
Through all of it, attentiveness to the Presence, as she refers to the ultimate loving spiritual reality of God, praying for the Church and for the needs of the world become a hermit’s life mission. In a certain but very real sense, a hermit turns his or her back on the world precisely in order to focus on its greatest needs all the better.
Laura says that there are signs of a rise in interest in the eremitical vocation, but it is also a relatively rare vocation.
In the US there are about 100 or so Catholic hermits, and quite a few Anglican ones as well.
In Australia there are relatively few; some priests in the eastern states of Australia live the eremitical life unofficially.
“Yes, it’s making a comeback, but then it’s hardly a ‘tsunami.’ It’s a rare life. You have to be able to handle the solitude,” she says
Meanwhile, even though caves are, admittedly, something of a PR problem for the vocation of being a hermit, contrary to popular imagination hermits don’t live in caves never to be seen again.
“I’ve about had it up to here with cave jokes,” she says with a grin.
Hermits, even if they spurn human company, still, after all, have to shop, go to the doctor, and run errands.
Hermits may not socialise, says Laura (after all, that’s the point of being a hermit, isn’t it?) but they still look after their friends while they pray for the world.
“The way I look after my friends is once or twice a year I get a priest to celebrate Mass in the garden,” she says simply.
That’s not bad. In fact, what could be better?
– Peter Rosengren
Anyone who would like to be present for the special Mass at North Beach at 7.30pm on November 5 is welcome and invited. Please RSVP to the parish on (08) 9448 4888.