Sunday, November 11, 2012

How did hermits keep the Sunday Obligation?

If you are anything like me, then you must have wondered occasionally, upon reading the tales of St. Benedict spending years alone in an inaccessible cave on Subiaco or St. Daniel Stylites sitting for thirty years atop a pillar, how on earth these hermit-saints fulfilled the Sunday obligation which stipulates participation in Mass every Sunday? When did these holy hermit saints ever receive Holy Communion?

At first glance, it might seem plausible to suggest that the canonical obligation to attend Mass every Sunday was not yet defined, and that in the age of the Desert Fathers and the early Benedictines, Christians basically went to Mass on Sundays as a matter of custom, but not as a strict obligation that needed to be fulfilled on pain of sin. This explanation would allow the hermits leeway to spend extended periods of time in solitude in the wilderness without attending Mass and yet not be guilty of sin.

The only problem with this explanation is that it is not historically accurate. Although canon law as such did not crystallize into a uniform legal code until the 12th century, "canons" certainly existed in the Early Church which prescribed attendance at Sunday Mass and imposed ecclesiastical censures for those who did not. For example, the Council of Elvira (300) decreed: "If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected" (Canon 21). In the Apostolic Constitutions, which belong to the end of the fourth century, both the hearing of the Mass and the rest from work are prescribed, and this is attributed to the Apostles. Thus, by the fourth century the general necessity of attending Mass on Sundays was well-known; note that these decrees are contemporary with the earliest Desert Fathers and predate St. Benedict at least a century and a half. Thus, it cannot really be said that a Sunday obligation was unknown in these early centuries. Besides, there was always Hebrews 10:25m which encouraged Christians to meet together regularly for worship, "Not forsaking our assembly, as some are accustomed..."

A further argument against this position is that it does not help us solve the dilemma for hermits who came much later in history, men like St. Cuthbert of Linidsfarne (d. 687) who lived in solitude for eight years on a small island in the North Sea; or Robert of Knaresborough (1160-1218), a hermit who spent his life in a cave in the vicinity of York and certainly lived after the period when the canonical Sunday obligation was clearly defined and universally known.

If the obligation was already known in the days of the Desert Fathers and earliest western hermits, then perhaps we may postulate that they in fact did receive communion regularly? For example, when we read that St. Daniel Stylites lived on top of a pillar for thirty years and never came down even once, we assume of course that though he was not coming down, someone else was coming up; otherwise, how did he obtain food? And if we assume that some disciple was regularly bringing food to fulfill the demands of bodily health, may we not also assume that some disciple likewise regularly brought him Holy Communion to fulfill the demands of spiritual health? When we read of St. Anthony and his community of monks, we must presume there was some priest among them who said Mass and distributed communion to the community. This presumption is based upon the acknowledgement that these individuals were eminently holy and would not out themselves in living arrangements that would preclude them from attending Mass or receiving Holy Communion. Thus, whenever we read about a holy hermit, we must always assume that some provision was made to fulfill this obligation.

This is the view I myself took of this matter for many years, until I realized three very strong weaknesses in the argument:

First, it depends upon a very powerful assumption - that whenever we read of a holy hermit or saintly recluse, we must always assume that they were receiving communion weekly even when their biographies make no mention of it. Surely, had they been receiving communion weekly, their devout hagiographers would have taken care to point this out? But regardless, it is poor history to simply assume that something was regularly going on when there is no real evidence to support such an assumption.

Second, many of the saints' lives positively rule out such explanations. St. Athanasius' biography if St. Anthony is very specific in stating that, after the saint moved into a fortress in the Egyptian desert, he went without any human contact for almost twenty years. How silly would it be for St. Athanasius to say this if what he really meant was, "Except that he left to go to Mass at the local church every week." No; Athanasius is clear that Anthony had not human contact for many years. The life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne also states plainly that Cuthbert lived in a small cell on the Farne Islands inaccessible to the outside world except by a small window and that Cuthbert never left it. The life of St. Benedict written by Pope St. Gregory the Great says that the holy Father, when living on Mount Subiaco, dwelt in an inaccessible cave on a sheer cliff face and that he had no human contact for several years, save from the monk Romanus who would lower food down via rope once in awhile. When these biographers go out of their way to stress that these holy hermits had no human contact, how can we justify presuming that they either left for Mass once a week or else received someone who gave them Holy Communion? Of course, perhaps in communities like the one that sprouted up around Anthony later in his life there would be priests present, but it doesn't do away with the passages that specifically deny any human interaction for very long periods.

Finally, even if Anthony or Benedict or Cuthbert had someone bringing them Holy Communion, attending Mass is not the same thing as receiving Holy Communion, and simply having someone bring you Holy Communion while you live in a cave does not constitute fulfilling the Sunday obligation, which stipulates not the reception of communion, but the hearing of Mass, regardless of whether or not communion is received. This is an important distinction we should all know (see here); thus, even if it were true that someone brought these holy men communion once a week, the fundamental problem of how they fulfilled their Sunday obligation would not be resolved.

This is still true for those hermits who reserved the Blessed Sacrament in their cells so that they could receive Communion occasionally, which was common. It does not solve the problem of the Sunday obligation.

If they knew of the Sunday obligation, and we can reasonably assume they did not have some secret way of fulfilling it, are we left with nothing else than to accuse them of sin for intentionally missing Mass? God forbid; the men are saints because they are holy, and they would not be holy if they were guilty of habitually sinning. What are we to do then? Fortunately, there is one other solution, one that I think is very satisfactory.

Let us begin with two assumptions which I do not think any serious Catholic would dispute: first, that the life of the Desert Fathers and hermits was pleasing to God; and second, that God does not command what is impossible. If we can grant these two simple assumptions, then the problem can be happily resolved.

The eremetical life has always been seen as the most radical way of fulfilling the Evangelical Counsels. This is why this style of life was so praised in the early Church and why the early hermits like Anthony were so universally venerated. Thus, whatever a hermit had to do to create the solitude necessary for successfully living the eremetic life was seen as a good, whether living in a cave on a cliff face, dwelling alone in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, or sitting on top of a pillar for three decades. The whole purpose of eremetical life is to cut oneself off from society, including the society of the Church on earth; not because it is bad, but because the solitude afforded by the eremetical life becomes the occasion of perfecting the soul's union with God. This has always been understood and has always been seen as a good in Christina spirituality.

We also know that God does not command what is impossible. Given this, in canon law, as in civil law, there have always been exceptions and relaxations of certain laws based on impossibility of fulfillment. A Catholic astronaut doing a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station is not held to the Sunday Obligation, for obvious reasons of impossibility of fulfillment; the same applies for Catholics living or traveling in heathen lands where there is no Catholic parish, or even for those Catholics who, though in their homeland, are incapable of attending Mass (camping in Yellowstone twenty miles from the nearest road, laid up in bed with pneumonia, or a single-mother just staying home to attend a sick child). There are a number of reasons why an individual would be practically hindered from getting to Mass, and in these situations - assuming they are legitimate and serious - the canonical obligation is relaxed due to an impossibility of reasonable fulfillment.

Touching on the Sunday Obligation, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states:

"If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the liturgy of the word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families" (Can. 1248§2).

So Canon Law allows for an exception when "celebration of the Eucharist is impossible": and recommends participation in reading and praying of the Scriptures personally or in groups as an acceptable substitute in such circumstances. I know that obviously this canon is part of the 1983 Code, but it recapitulates an earlier canonical tradition that no doubt dates from the earliest days of the Church, as Canon Law is nothing but a summation of what the Church has always done, and the laws concerning the Sunday Obligation were not altered at Vatican II. If we presume that the early fathers and hermits understood the obligation this was, even if they hadn't formulated it systematically, I think the problem disappears.

It does leave us with one question, though: Although we know the obligation is relaxed if its fulfillment is impossible, is it still relaxed if we put ourselves in a situation of impossibility of fulfillment intentionally? Should we not go camping or travel to places where we know ahead of time that we will not be able to attend Mass? And if not, how would this be any different than Benedict choosing to live in a cave for three years with full-knowledge that he would not be able to attend Mass?

It would be tempting to say that such behavior would be wrong for us but alright for Benedict because he is a saint, but I do not think we can allow one standard of behavior for the saints and a different one for everybody else; saints are saints because they are worthy of being imitated, not because we judge them differently and allow bizarre behavior for them but condemn it elsewhere (I have written on this here). No; we have to actually account for the saints' behavior, not just shrug it off as some weird thing that they do because they are saints.

It is my understanding that it is not wrong to intentionally put oneself in a position where fulfillment of the Sunday Obligation is impossible provided this is not our direct intention in doing so. A man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska for recreation and misses Mass does not sin by doing so; a man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska because he knows his pastor will be preaching against adultery that week and he himself has committed adultery and does not want to suffer through hearing his sin condemned from the pulpit does commit a sin, for his purpose in going camping is simply to avoid having to go to Mass. So I think intention is key here.

To go back to the intention of the hermits, for what end did they withdraw from the world and intentionally put themselves in circumstances where the hearing of Mass was not possible?

Certainly their intention was not to get away from God or avoid obligations; if anything, it was to draw closer to God and more perfectly fulfill their Christian obligations by living the Evangelical Counsels. Such an argument against the eremtical life of the saints that depends on intention for justification would certainly end up justifying their choice of life. This is why no ecclesiastical writer or hagiographer ever seems to think it is an issue than the saints and hermits are not able to attend Mass; they understand that their choice of life makes it impossible to fulfill the Sunday obligation and that in these circumstances, that decision is justified in the eyes of God and the Church.

To sum it up: Though it is true that the Sunday Obligation was known of and was in force in the age of the Desert Fathers and hermits, it seems implicitly understood that the law is relaxed in their case due to an impossibility of fulfillment based upon the nature of the eremetical life itself. Because the eremtical life facilitates the fulfillment of the Evangelical Counsels and is pleasing to God, it is a just and holy thing for men and women to devote themselves to God in this way, and consequently, their intention to leave the world, even if it means an inability to attend Mass regularly, is justified entirely.


Titus said...

Why not simply assume that they were explicitly dispensed from the obligation? Somewhere near c. 1284, which you cite, there's a provision permitting pastors to dispense from the Sunday obligation for good cause. I doubt that's an innovation of the 1983 CIC, although I don't have a commentary at hand.

Boniface said...

You could infer an implicit dispensation, whereby their bishops simply knew why they were out there and had no problem with it. That is what I mean when I say they were exempted.

But I don't think you can infer a formal, explicit dispensation in every case, for the same reason you cannot infer someone was bringing them communion - its a pretty big inference about something there is no real evidence for. Basically, I think they just went out and did their thing and everyone understood it was alright.

Noah Moerbeek said...

Its interesting you chose to do a post on this. My next Audiobook project is on the early desert Fathers.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Boniface. Kudos. I never even considered the matter to say nothing about resolving it the way you have,

Anonymous said...

This dilemma has been mine, as a hermit and Catholic, at that. I have felt guilt and confusion as to why it seemed quite obvious that God was actually blocking my being accepted in parishes and also during Mass, as a situation made it difficult if not blocked, my participating in Mass, and with mystical occurrence causing the problem for the folks and priests who could not grapple with it in our times. Just recently a priest who is attempting in retirement the eremitic path, commented that parishes are not actually meant for hermits, or hermits not a good fit for parishes bY our vocations themselves. What you have written is most helpful. I had been thinking along these lines, but others were judging and thinking I was in the wrong and sinning, or that it was not of God. Now I realize it all makes sense, and in have inner peace.

Boniface said...


Well, please do not mistake my meaning. If you have any way of going to Mass, you are obligated to, regardless of whether you think you "fit in" at a parish. The obligation is only implicitly dispensed with if, due to your living conditions as a hermit, you are physically too far out or separated to attend Mass - i.e., it is physically not possible for you to reasonably get there weekly. The fact that you have access to a computer of some sort leads me to believe this is not your case?

Sr. Laurel M. O'Neal, Er. Dio. said...

As a canonical hermit I find the situation to be one of competing obligations, first those associated with Baptism, and then those associated with profession and consecration and the additional canonical obligations assumed therein. The latter MAY moderate or otherwise modify the former -- at least at times.

Hermit Saints and possible Saints have indeed grappled with this situation in the past, not least Paul Giustiniani who determined in the 15-16C that living as a solitary hermit was no longer licit due to the new ecclesiastical requirements for Eucharist, frequent Communion, confession, etc. His solution was the laura.

The situation regarding competing obligations does not obtain for lay hermits. They are bound absolutely by their baptismal obligations and commitment because they have neither been admitted to nor assumed no additional public (canonical) rights or obligations.

Anonymous said...

I live in a very remote area. I have chronic pain, but it is quite a drive to get to a parish. Another issue is difficulty more,than just fitting in, but gross judging and persecution due to a state that occurs in Masses, an ecstasy. Rare but not unheard of, yet could with the long drive and sitting increasing the pain levels, plus the reality of the bulk of women hermits, in particular, but also men eremites who were not priests, and did not have sacraments other than spiritual. Hermits unable for any reason who cannot be at Holy mass in person! from Mary of Bethany in her cave at Astrid. Baume in south of France, did not attend Mass but did have spiritual commu in. We also have, day and night, as Sadrament slats available, His Living Word. You laid out solid research and reasoning, historical and theological. All that I had read of individual hermits over the centuries, concurs. When another hermit, a priest, emailed and stated it is not a surprise nor should be that eremitic life is not that of parishes nor parishioners, that added another reality. It has helpd immensely with accepting The specific and personal circumstances. That all could change if and when agod ills and allows. John on Patmos had not Mass. Bl. Maria of Olonets, st. Mary of the Desert, Santa Rosalia, to name a few, did not. I am currently reading the bio of St. Nicholas of Flue. I'm sure current day priests and bishops and Catholic parishioners would balk or condemn his leaving wife and eight children to follow an eremitic vocation, going into the mountains to live in solitude and prayer. He is the patron saint of Switzerland. When one actually studies these hermits' lives, it only corroborates the realities. It goes to show, despite our typical ways and mans, that God does as He wills with souls. His thoughts and mind are far beyond ours.but it is very true that the Church has never treated mystics kindly. Many were severely injured when in Mass, by people judging or trying to run painful experiments. Catherine of Siena was bodily picked up and dumpd outside by two male parishioners, and then people walked by and kicked her. There are many details that are fogged over the years. Anyway, your research and reasoning are quite sound and helpful. God will make all matters clear to all of us souls, some day.

Anonymous said...

Yes, re-read the last two paragraphs. It is lucid, reasonable, factual, theologically sound, and is consistent with the bulk of eremitic vocations, yet today. "Reasonably feasible" is one reality, or not reasonably feasible. But the intent is a factor, as you have written, also. We simply, perhaps, have difficulty accepting or coping with what is, compared to what makes sense in the past. Ultimately, it all works out according to god's will, for those who love and follow His will. I can easily figure that the today's church clerics and laity alike would not accept Simin on his style! Anyway, stick with your research and insights, for they are sound on this topic. As for computers, the most remote areas now have cell signals.

Anonymous said...

The early believers as written in the book of acts met at the synagouge and break bread in each others home daily. It was also written that St Benedict break bread with his followers. He is not an ordained priest. Therefore it is permissible for believers to gather together to break bread together with a priest. The rest are only man made laws outside of the bible.

Anonymous said...

I also wonder how they confessed their sins?

Boniface said...

They probably didn't. In the early Church the sacrament of confession was typically used only one time. Regular confession wasn't practiced until the Middle Ages.

Jude Malachi said...

Thank you for this post. I’ve often wanted to live as a hermit and have mainly been dissuaded from doing because of the obligation to attend Mass. Like you, I assumed, they did somehow meet the Sunday obligation. I think it’s important to get some formal permission for this in the Church. St. Faustina stated in her diary that Jesus found penance authorized by the Church more pleasing than self-initiated penance.

Anonymous said...

What if, through their deep prayers of devotion. Jesus or the Blessed Mother appeared to them and gave permission so to speak. What if God himself gave his body and and blood by appearing in person to them on Sundays. What if they had the ability like Padre Pio to bilocate. We can't rule out miracles, apparitions or even Gods Will for certain individuals. If Jesus can turn water to wine and wine to blood, can he not also answer the cries of a devout Catholic who wants badly to suffer in the ways of a hermit and for that hermit to still recieve the sacraments and being able to be present in the Church maybe even daily without anyone the wiser? God can do all things and if someone wants to suffer in these ways bad enough, and prays without ceasing for days in deep mental prayer until God appears and grants this to them. They can't just choose to live this way without God's approval first.
We are suppose to trust in God and let God choose our path and cross for us.