My Sister the Hermit

Mary making her vows

My sister is a hermit. No, she’s not shy. I don’t mean that.

No, she doesn’t just hide in her room. Well, sometimes she does, but that’s not what I mean either. And I am not trying to be funny and imply that my sister is a crab. When I say that my sister is a hermit I mean is that she is a religious hermit, a consecrated person, a diocesan hermit to be exact.  Did you think there weren’t any of those around since about 500 AD? Well, there are. And today you are going to meet one.

Meet Mary, in her mid-thirties. Last summer, our local bishop received her eremitic vows, during a Mass at a small Polish parish on the west side of town, in the presence of three priests, a master of ceremonies and immediate family members, their spouses and children. Taking these vows, Mary became a professed hermit, the first ever in our diocese.

“We have great reason to rejoice,” said the bishop in his homily at the Mass of the Rite of Public Profession of the Evangelical Counsels for a Person Following the Eremitic Life, “for Mary becomes the first professed hermit in the diocese … the consecrated life of a hermit goes back to the early years of the Church. Today, Mary embraces a station of life where she separates in some ways from world to be more united with the Lord Jesus.” Encouraging her assembled family he continued, “Be assured we can still talk to her, but most of her day will be spent in prayer. “

And it is.

According to definition, a hermit withdraws from the world, and spends most of the day in seclusion and silence, praying and fasting. A hermit publicly professes the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, and follows a rule of life that the local bishop has approved. Mary’s specific rule and vows reflect her vocation of being a hermit of “crucified love”, which means her “plan of life” is centered on Christ crucified.  Mary begins her day, fittingly, with Mass and spends many hours praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Because her “charism” is crucified love, she makes certain to spend the particular hours of noon to 3 p.m. in prayer and Adoration in church.  Additional prayer and good works-physical and spiritual – accompany her time.

The bishop stated in his homily during the Mass at which Mary took her vows, that Saint Paul wrote that many in the culture think those following Christ are strange or foolish. He pointed out, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25).  The bishop also stated that the Blessed Mother stood at the foot of the cross and is a role model for Mary, my sister,  as she seeks to live out her vocation. Since Mary made her vows on the feast of Saint Monica, the bishop reminded Mary that Saint Monica can also be a role model for her as she demonstrated steadfastness and a prayerful life.

How did Mary come to this place in her life?

Mary studied languages and theology at the University of Notre Dame, where she also played a role in starting Eucharistic Adoration on campus and a prayer group on the vocation of women. She graduated in 1999, then spent five months in a hermitage to discern her life’s work and proceeded to contact a priest she knew who was going to found a mission in Eastern Siberia, Russia. He spoke to his order’s founder and received permission for Mary to accompany him and a religious sister the following year into Siberia.

During this time, Mary stated that her particular vocation became very clear. “Jesus was calling me to live a spirituality of littleness, spousal love and the Cross,” she said.

Mary with Children at Orphanage

From 2003 to the Spring of 2011 Mary lived as what she calls a “pilgrim hermit”, dividing her time between praying and serving the poor in missions and spending time of solitude in hermitages. While in the mission work she worked with the local bishop and lived within a parish or religious community that had invited her. Mission work varied greatly and included serving some of the more than 200,000 people living in trash dumps in the Philippines, caring for sick and orphaned babies in Tanzania and orphaned children in South Africa, giving retreats in Eastern and Western Europe, weeding gardens, visiting prostitutes and working on prayer teams. Mary insists that her most important work was and is prayer, and she sometimes spends up to seven or eight hours daily praying or in the presence of the Holy Eucharist.

In the spring of 2011 Mary felt strongly that God was calling her to “somehow be buried even deeper in the Church.” “Jesus had been showing me clearly over time how the greatest way I could touch and serve all those suffering … in the world is through more intensified prayer and less travel to physical missions,” she said. She met with the bishop then to discuss her vocation.

The hermit’s life of silence and solitude is not absolute. Mary’s life follows a plan of life daily including times of complete silence/solitude, but also allows for times of “work” which can include manual labor, language study, works of mercy if a dire need arises, personal spiritual growth, and some very limited spiritual correspondence/direction with people seeking help, as well as occasionally giving retreats or talks, all under the direction of the bishop.

Mary lives a simple life. She dresses plainly, although she has no formal “habit”. Some of the younger nieces and nephews (she has more than 50) call her “Auntie Brown” because of the shades-of-brown clothes and sandals or boots that she wears most of the time. She’s allowed to have some visit time – just not much, and she doesn’t attend social events, parties or get togethers, as a general rule.

Mary’s favorite thing to do, when she is able to visit with family, is cuddle with the youngest nieces and nephews or to strum the guitar and sing with them. She always has a baby on her hip.  Mary, the ninth of 13 children,  lives in her parents’ home and has a small retreat hermitage on part of their property, where she spends additional prayer time. The building is simple, unheated, and has just enough room for a rocker, a kneeler, a huge crucifix and a blanket.  It is there that Mary, when she is not in church, brings her intentions before the Lord.

Mary might not be what you would imagine a hermit to be. She is bubbly, talkative, whenever she is not silent. She’s not only smart, but funny as well. She smiles a lot . She has a cute dimple. The teenagers find it easy to talk to her. She listens to them and people have called her non-judgmental, which you may find surprising for such an outwardly religious person. She has great depth and wisdom for a woman so young. She loves God above all else. Oh, and she likes ham sandwiches.

Mary really did not want me to write this article, because she doesn’t want the attention put on herself. She points to God; she loves Him fiercely.  But I convinced her it was okay, telling her that you all would want to know about his as an option – for yourselves or your children – and to know how this all might work if you choose it. Besides I’m her godmother, and older sister. I know how to pressure, even a hermit.

My husband and I recently celebrated 25 years of marriage and attended a Mass celebrated by our bishop. When he saw us afterwards he said, “And how is Mary? I haven’t seen her in awhile.”  We could not help ourselves in responding spontaneously, “You haven’t seen her?! Well you know she IS a hermit, remember?”  Heh. Heh. He did.

Our bishop sums up my sister’s vocation thus, “(Mary) offers her life as bride and spouse of Jesus and as a prayer for others, as a prayer for the Church, for her family, for priests and for her spiritual children and all intentions the Lord places on her heart. I for one am going to be counting on her prayers.” I guess I’d have to say, Yes me too! Basically, she is our family’s – and the world’s – prayer warrior.

So there you go, something more to think about today and to consider – the life of a modern hermit. The face is different than you had thought initially a hermit would have, isn’t it?  I know, me too. I never in a million years thought it would be the face of my little sister. But it is, and I am so proud of her. She is a blessing to the world and I just wanted you to meet her, if only briefly before she goes back into obscurity.

My intention is not to laud the praises of my sibling, though. Oh no, she herself would shun the attention. My hope is simply to share information about this beautiful, ancient vocation with you, so you can ponder it and see one version of what it looks like.

Vocation is as unique as each individual is. One married woman’s call is not exactly like another’s, and one woman’s call to consecrated life is not a carbon copy of another’s either. Becoming a consecrated religious as a diocesan hermit is an option today as much as it was hundreds of years ago, and I would like to leave you with this thought: As you are helping your children consider their vocations – married, single or consecrated religious, don’t forget to tell them there are many ways to serve Christ. Don’t forget to tell them to listen to that small, soft voice of God guiding them. And don’t forget to tell them about the hermit option. I assure you that there is still a place for hermits in the modern world. I know because one of them is my sister.

Most people do not relate their years of study at Notre Dame to a dance with Jesus. But I guess I am not like most people. During my years studying under the Dome I realized very quickly that life was much more than the books I had to read or the papers I had to write. I began to truly understand that I had been created for a purpose. I had a Creator. Someone’s Hands actually formed my being – my Father in heaven actually breathed His breath into me to give me life. Jesus had given His life to save me from death – He had purchased me with His blood and Love. I was not my own. I was His – His beloved.

The closer I drew to Jesus, the farther the world of college life fell away… it all became a shadow surrounding His Face, His Voice, His Love, ever calling to me from the Eucharist. And so my life became a search for ‘Him Whom my heart loves…’ [1] I began to spend seven hours a day in adoration. Many would say that so many hours of prayer is a waste of time. And yet only by spending such time with Jesus could He begin to fill my heart with His Love, a Love bigger than this world’s notion of love’, a Love willing to endure suffering and death. This was the sort of Love He wanted for me to share with the world.”  – Mary, a Catholic hermit, 2011 +

To learn more about vocations in general, please contact your local diocesan vocations office. To learn more about a new children’s series on the topic, “Mary is a Missionary”, “John is a Priest”, write me at:

Theresa Thomas is the co-author Stories for the Homeschool Heart (Bezalel Books, 2010 & winner of Best Catholic Book of 2010), Family Columnist at Today’s Catholic News and a Contributing Writer for Integrated Catholic Life.

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  1. Thank you so very much for writing this and please give Mary our love and support. I especially liked your paragraph emphasizing that everyone’s vocation is as absolutely unique as they are.

    As a mom of a large family, homeschooling, etc., etc. it can be very tempting to think you MUST act, look and be just like every other homeschooling family – from wearing the denim jumpers to never cutting your daughter’s hair. While is nothing wrong with either choice, if it is not your family’s vocation it becomes a caricature of holiness.

    I am reminded daily of the words of my first grade teacher at St. Mary’s School – Sr. Mary Linus – who needing to teach 6 yr. old children the etiquette and rules of school life reminded us – “Keep your eyes on your own work”. This has become my small prayer every day.

    Your story also reminded me of my dh’s grandmother. In living a life of work for her family – including grandchildren – she was distraught that her age and illness had made her bedridden. During a visit to her, I was inspired to ask her to say a rosary for our family every day as I often did not find (make) the time to do one. I asked her specifically to be my family’s prayer warrior. Her face visibly changed and I could see her rise to the challenge. “I absolutely will!”, she said. And I knew she did. Now, even though she is gone from earth,I ask her continue to pray for us and I know she does. I attribute the one religious vocation, so far :-),
    to her intercession.

    Let Mary know our family will be praying for her and all those who will follow her after reading her story.

  2. Thank you so much for publishing this. I’m also discerning a vocation to the eremitical life, and this article was invaluable to me.

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