What is, in fact, spirituality? The term is used to indicate all sorts of things which have to do with a personal experience of faith. In relation to monastic orders and other Church institutions it has a different meaning. Here, “spirituality” is the individual “colour” or “shape” of a monastic order or institution. A given country or a specific period in time can also have its ow spirituality, or spiritual attitude.
The Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans, for example, are all Catholic, but they each have very different ways to give shape to that. One greatly emphasises study and preaching, the other the experience of poverty and the next the beauty of Church services and the Liturgy of the Hours.
It is not easy to discuss the “spirituality of the hermits”, since, like monastic orders, there are also hermits in great variety. There is, logically, a rather large difference between the life of a hermit in the desert, who sees no one for months on end, and the life of – as Brother Hugo calls himself – a “simple hermit in a pilgrimage site”. Simply put, the “spiritualy of the hermitage in Warfhuizen” has three pillars. These spiritual pillars are:
Pillar 1: Catholic
The hermit’s life is rooted in Holy Scripture and the Sacraments. Holy Scripture is the Bible, read and ruminated on daily. The Psalms and the Gospels are especially important. The Sacraments are Church rituals which Christ Himself instituted to make present and maintain His love among and in His people. Adoration of the Eucharist – the Body of Christ hidden under the appearance of bread – is also part of the standard prayers in the hermitage.
In addition, the Sacrament of Confession plays a major part in the life of the hermit. “If you don’t dare acknowledge your own piteousness, you will not know mercy for the other.” For him, awareness of sin has “nothing to do with kicking yourself when you’re down, but everything with becoming aware of the correct relations. Your relation to God, your relation with other people.”
Pillar 2: Monastic
‘Monastic’ is the adjective of ‘monk’. ‘Monk-like’, you could say. In the Church, as we already saw, there is an enormous number of sorts of monks, so there are also quite a number of ways of being ‘monastic’. But these have a number of things in common, and that is because all Christian monasteries ultimately have the same origin. In the fourth century, when the persecutions were over, hermits journeyed into the Egyptian desert to seek God in silence and solitude. We call them the ‘Desert Fathers’.
In the same way that the ‘Church Fathers’ stood at the cradle of the Church as a whole, the ‘Desert Fathers’ stood at the origin of monastic life. Characteristic for their way of thinking and acting is their common sense: people often fool themselves, so it is important to continuously try to find the centre of things and always return to it without compromise. Not without a sense of humour, but also with a strictness which sometimes seems rather radical to us today, the ‘litte fathers’, as they are also called, tried to make their surrender to God as complete as possible.
Among the Desert Fathers the spiritual guidance of a so-called ‘old man’ or ‘patriarch’ was considered to be of vital importance. Young rmonks lived under the leadership of such a ‘little father’, who kept them on the straight and narrow with short and wise sayings – so-called ‘words’. Many of those sayings were written down and bound together in large collections. Here we give two examples of Holy Abba Moses:
A brother came to the Scetic Desert to visit Abba Moses, and ask him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”.
When a monk does not find in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear him. The brother said, “what does that mean, to find in your heart that you are a sinner?” Then the old man said, “when someone is preoccupied with his own mistakes, he will have no eye for those of his neighbour.”
Like the past brothers in the desert, Brother Hugo has a spiritual father who helps him grow in his calling. The sayings and ideas of the Desert Fathers play a major part in that. The Jesus Prayer, the lengthy repeating of and meditating on the name ‘Jesus’ is also part of that tradition of spiritual life. The black chord which you often see the brother carry around (a so-called ‘Tschotki’) has something to do with this.
Typical for the monastic way is the so-called ‘office’ or ‘Liturgy of the Hours’. These terms indicate a rhythm of prayer times which covers the entire day, making sure it is ‘sanctified’, as it is called so beautifully. The heart of the office is the Book of Psalms from the Bible, which is sung in its entirety every week. It is supplemented with hymns, intercessions, readings and antiphons.
Pillar 3: Baroque
Most monasteries – at least in the Netherlands – are very modestly furnished. Warfhuizen is more like a village church from the Alps: flamboyant and colourful. When you enter for the first time, you won’t know where to look. When you get to know the liturgy, the way of praying and singing in the hermitage, better, you will notice that it also has ‘decorations’ you won’t find in a Benedictine Abbey. They are colourful hymns and prayers which are full of imagery and metaphors.
They are part of what is of old called the ‘Baroque spirituality’. That way of thinking and acting developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a response to the separation of the Protestants. Characteristic for the Baroque is that all the power of imagination one can muster – in music, architecture, masonry and painting – is used to present and experience that beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic faith. The old Dutch hermitages – of which the one in Warfhuizen emphatically wants to be a continuation – were of a certain ‘commoners’ Baroque’. Brother Hugo thinks it is important to honour that tradition. On first sight that may go against the monastic ideal as described above, but in practice they go very well together. Childlike simplicity is, after all, also often expressed in colourful drawings.