There have been Christian hermits since the early fourth century. After the great persecutions of Christians were over, Egyptian monks headed into the desert to seek God in silence and loneliness. They put themselves under the guidance of an older and wiser spiritual father, and so laid the foundation for monastic life. These so-called desert fathers included St. Anthony Abbot (known for the ‘Temptations of St. Anthony’), St. Paul of Thebes, St. Evagrius Ponticus and St. John Cassian.
These latter two especially had a great influence on monastic life in Europe. Evagrius was more educated than most desert monks, who were mostly of lowly descent. That is why he was able to somewhat systematise the spirituality of the desert. His teaching on the eight (unholy) thoughts, for example, were the basis for the later ‘cardinal sins’, as formulated by St. Gregory the Great. John Cassian, then, was the one who brought the teachings of the fathers to Europe. He founded the renowned monastery of St. Victor in Marseille and was a great influence on St. Benedict, whose rule would be the main formative factor in western monastic life.
Although most monks came together in monasteries, hermits continued to exist. From the Middle Ages we known St. Giles of Nîmes, St. Leonard of Noblac and St. Meinrad of Einsiedeln. In our own region there lived St. Gerlac of Houthem, a converted knight and warrior who inhabited a hollow tree near Valkenburg. The right side altar in the chapel of Warhuizen is dedicated to him and contains a fragment of his relics.
Eremitic life in the Netherlands sespecially soared from the seventeenth century onwards, under the influence of the Counter-Reformation. It should not be surprising, therefore, that this is a mostly southern Dutch phenomenon. The rest of the territory, after all, suffered under the yoke of Protestant oppression. Like in the early Egyptian period of eremitical life, this time the hermits were once again very simple brothers who lived in a remote cell adjoining a devotional chapel.
Like the furniture of the sanctuary they guarded and took care of, they were the praying heart of it, and spent the rest of their time with leaning and simple work to provide for their livelihood. Not without reason the hermit of Warfhuizen jokingly refers to himself as a ‘glorified sacristan’. But behind that lies an honestly felt and deeply lived intention: “To be there, in the house of JHWH – that is all I desire,” as the Psalms sing.
The hermitage of Warfhuizen
Solidly built on a true Dutch tradition, the hermitage of Warfhuizen itself is not that old: established in an empty and dilapidated church in 2001, it continues a way of life which has become extinct (since 1930) in the south. And furthermore, a Marian pilgrimage site developed in Wrfhuizen by accident, which makes the situation look even more like the southern examples: a place of prayer for many, taken care of by a hermit living in seclusion.