The Lay Hermits on Mount Carmel--
forerunners of today's Carmelites--
by 15th century artist, fra Lippo Lippi
There were those in the Church who saw danger in these hermits. First, while there might occasionally be a converted priest among their numbers, they were almost entirely laymen without formal education in theology or bible. Secondly, they exalted the poverty of Christ which made the bishops and many of the priests of their day look flawed for their wealth and comfortable ways. Furthermore, they concentrated their efforts not on the movers and shakers of the day, but on those whom society had left behind, helpless in their poverty and consequently they were held in great esteem not only by the poor but by many of the middle classes who admired their humble service. Some bishops and prelates feared that these radicals would become like the Waldensians or the Cathars and offer religious alternatives to the faithful, alternatives that would leave them—the prelates—with fewer sheep to fleece. Other prelates just felt that these lay hermits made them, the bishops, look bad for their neglect of the poor and for the extravagance of their own lifestyles. Defenders of the Status Quo accused these poor men of Gnosticism and other heresies when in fact they were only faithful to the Gospel. Perhaps the reader can see the subtext here and how this period of history speaks to the current situation and the harassment of the American nuns by certain prelates in our time and place, but lest you think that I am making this up, let me suggest a book that treats well of the religious reforms of the 12th and 13th centuries in their social context. Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, was written by Smith College Professor of European History, Lester Little, in 1983—long before the current group of prelatial ne’er-do-wells began hatching their plots against the good ladies.
Up until the accession of Innocent III to the papal throne in 1198 many voices for genuine reform in the Church were having difficulty but Innocent wasn’t afraid of the Gospel and the impact it had on peoples’ lives. He recognized the integrity of many people who were trying to lead Christ-like lives in the midst of a society—political and ecclesial—that was obsessed with power and wealth. Innocent himself, despite his great power as Pope, was a man of frugal, even austere, life and habits. He had great personal integrity and was amazingly open to correction even from the most humble of his subjects. He took the gospel seriously and he recognized that these voices for reform needed to be heard. Even though most of these hermits were not priests, he encouraged their street-corner preaching and calls to repentance.
The most important of these lay hermits during Innocents’ reign as pope was a humble man from Assisi, a town about a three days walk north of Rome. Francis—his father’s nickname for him (his actual name was John but his father—a wealthy cloth merchant—had always referred to him as his “Frenchie”)—came from a nouveau-riche merchant family, but had broken with his father and walked away from the family’s wealth for a life of prayer and voluntary poverty in imitation of Christ. There is a spiritual axiom going back to Saint Jerome—“Naked Follow the Naked Christ”—and Francis valued the poverty of Christ who had emptied himself of all his divine power for our sake.Innocent greatly admired the poor man from Assisi and empowered him and his brotherhood to preach the gospel. The impact was huge. Francis’ brotherhood grew and expanded across the Christian world in just a few years’ time and in his own short lifetime thousands of men chose to follow Francis following Christ. A corresponding sisterhood was established by a disciple, Clare, who like Francis came from a well to do family but left behind the wealth to establish the Order of Poor Ladies (usually called Poor Clares in English-speaking countries.).
Other hermit groups of the time developed into the Servite, Augustinian, and Carmelite Orders. A society of preaching priests, the Order of Preachers or Dominicans, while not having begun as lay hermits, adopted this model of mendicant friars as well.
I have to admit that when I see these School Sisters of Notre Dame and Sisters of Saint Francis, and Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of Saint Joseph, and Daughters of Charity today wearing what clothes that are given them or they can buy cheaply, and living in apartments or simple homes, and reaching out to the elderly, to the poor, to abused women and children, I am impressed by their generous service and humble witness. I am old enough to remember the Ladies of Loretto and the Madames of the Sacred Heart and Sisters of the Holy Cross of yesteryear with their starched habits and elegant manners and I appreciate the work they did educating women for leadership but am even more impressed by these same women who have in their senior years left behind the trappings of gentility for service of the poor. Archbishop Lori lives comfortably in his Baltimore mansion looking forward to his red hat, and Cardinal Burke drags around wherever he goes a nine-yard train of scarlet silk, and Cardinal Law—well we all know what he has done—these are the persecutors of these good women of the gospel. I can see why these prelates are afraid of the nuns. I would be afraid of the nuns too if I were in their buskins. Sinners always try to hide from the light of saints. These women are showing the way for the reform the Church needs today. Now we need a pope like Innocent III who can see that.