The Sacred Call of Solitude: Saint Romuald and Mother Seton - Seton Shrine
The Sacred Call of Solitude: St. Romuald and Mother Seton

The Sacred Call of Solitude: Saint Romuald and Mother Seton

Although separated by centuries, St. Romuald of Ravenna and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton shared lifelong desires for solitude and silence, as they sought ever deeper experiences of divine intimacy.

Thanks to the great canopy of beech and fir, the pathway up the mountainside is slick with mud and dimly lit. The silence is profound, a deep hush broken only by birdsong or the grunt of a rooting boar or the eerie bugling of a lovelorn stag. In the early eleventh century, this verdant Apennine world still belongs to the trees and the rushing Archiano. But all of this is changing: on a broad, grassy meadow near the summit, a handful of solitary men have quietly begun to settle. These hermits wear goatskins and sandals and live, each to himself, in small cells made of stone. It’s clear they intend to stay; they have just completed a church and a lodge for common meals.

Their spiritual master is a Benedictine called Romuald, who despite his reclusive nature is known throughout Italy. Though he began as a monk of the great Cluniac monastery of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, he soon realized he was called to far greater solitude and silence than was being practiced in that beautiful but spiritually lax environment. He’s been traversing the countryside for thirty years by now, a famous peripatetic hermit, now here, now there, stopping only to found small hermitages or reform existing monasteries and then moving on. Pilgrims seek him out for a word of wisdom or, even better, a miracle. After all, he once cured a man’s vicious toothache just by breathing on him. And of course, there was the time he healed a madman with a kiss. When he walks through a crowd, people pull bits of wool from his sheepskin, hoping to be transformed by this personal contact with the holy man.

Romuald also has the gift of tears. Whether he is preaching or presiding over the Eucharist, he cannot help but break into spontaneous weeping. According to the fourth-century desert fathers and mothers, these copious tears are triggered by sorrow over one’s sins, along with grief over all who are suffering. But they are at the same time tears of joy at the limitless mercy and irrepressible love of God. The desert elders believed that this sudden rush of tears, as from a spring that has been covered by a stone now cleared away, cleanses and heals the troubled heart and crystalizes the vision.

Mystic though he is, Romuald is also an eminently practical man. He has discovered, like St. Benedict five hundred years before him, that without proper formation, the kind that happens most naturally through communal living, solitude can drive a man mad. More, even experienced solitaries need guardrails, for they can easily start relying too much on their own judgment. Because he organizes his communities on the pattern laid down by St. Benedict, Romuald has become known as “the father of hermits who live according to right reason and follow the monastic Rule.”

But he has also learned that if monastics become overly invested in order, the fires of spiritual passion can easily be quenched. Thus, Romuald insists on discretion and balance. The whole point of the eremitical life is not mindless conformity, after all, but the elimination of unnecessary distractions. The goal is to see what is normally hidden and hear what is nearly inaudible: the still, small voice of God. But even under the best of circumstances, seeing and hearing on this level is a skill acquired only through persistence and faith. Romuald’s Brief Rule offers instructions for the novice:

Sit in your cell as in paradise.
Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish,
The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

If you have just come to the monastery,
and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want,
take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart
and to understand them with your mind.

And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up;
hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

Realize above all that you are in God’s presence,
and stand there with the attitude of one who stands
before the emperor.

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting,
content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing
but what his mother brings him.

Under Romuald’s gentle guidance, this small enclave of hermits will in time become the Camaldolese, one of the oldest continuous religious communities in the Western Church. A thousand years after they clamber up that slippery mountainside beneath the firs and beeches, the Sacro Eremo, or Holy Hermitage of Camaldoli, will still be thriving, along with a number of Camaldolese foundations around the world. And Romuald’s model for the contemplative Christian life will still be drawing new seekers, nowadays more likely lay oblates than vowed religious.

As a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate myself—a woman whose life of marriage, children, and full-time work has been far more like that of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton than Romuald of Ravenna—I have to wonder: did Elizabeth ever hear about him? Perhaps during those early, life-changing months in Italy when she first encountered the Catholic Church? And if so, what did she think of his strange and wonderful life?

The only clue I’ve been able to find appears in a letter Elizabeth wrote in 1805 to her first spiritual director, Father John Cheverus; he suggested she study the writings of St. Francis de Sales:.”[I]n reading the life of St. Francis. . . I felt a perfect willingness to follow him and could not but pray that my soul might have its portion with his on the great day.” Elizabeth so appreciated the wisdom she gleaned from this contemplative saint that she translated part of his work.

St. Francis, as it turns out, found some of his inspiration in Romuald. As he puts it in his famous Introduction to a Devout Life, “Ordinarily moderate cheerfulness should predominate in our associations with others. St. Romuald and St. Anthony [the first influential Christian hermit] have been highly praised because in spite of all their austerity they always had their countenance and speech adorned with joy, gaiety, and courtesy.”

Beyond urging Christians to look upon life with grateful wonder, Francis advises plenty of solitude: “Besides that mental solitude to which you may retreat even in the midst of the highest society . . . you must also love real, physical solitude. You should not go out into the desert like St. Mary of Egypt, St. Paul, St. Anthony, Arsenius, and the other ancient solitaries did. You should remain for some time alone with yourself in your room or garden or some other place. There you will have leisure to withdraw your spirit into your heart and refresh your soul with pious meditations, holy thoughts, or a little spiritual reading . . .”

Elizabeth followed this advice as best she could—not from a stone cell on a remote Italian mountainside but instead from the pulsing nerve center of extended family and community. In her lifelong quest for precious moments of solitude, she was much like today’s Camaldolese oblates—contemporary followers, like me, of that wandering, weeping, miracle-working hermit called St. Romuald of Ravenna.

The Feast Day of St. Romuald of Ravenna is June 19. 

PAULA HUSTON is a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow and the author of two novels and eight books of spiritual nonfiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and in the annual Best Spiritual Writing anthology. Like Mother Seton, Huston is a convert to Catholicism. In 1999, she became a Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate and is a lay member of New Camaldoli Hermitage’s community of monks in Big Sur, Calif. She’s also a former president of the Chrysostom Society, a national organization of literary Catholic writers.

Image: Public Domain.

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