The hermitage isn’t what you’d expect: a small home in a quiet neighborhood of Essex, Maryland, that was originally built as a one-room fishing shack 100 years ago. But then, the hermit who lives there isn’t what you’d expect, either. Mary Zimmerer, now Sr. Maria Veronica of the Holy Face, is a bubbly widow who discerned a call to the contemplative life after her husband passed away five years ago. Having made a public profession of vows last fall, she is now one of only two canonical (or diocesan) hermits in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Margaret Cabaniss met with Sister Maria Veronica to find out what it’s like to live this ancient vocation in the modern age.
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Margaret Cabaniss: For people who aren’t familiar with the idea, what is the eremitical life, and what makes it different from other religious vocations?
Sister Maria Veronica: It goes back to the Desert Fathers — men would leave the cities and go to the desert to get away from all that and pray. People would sometimes follow them there, receiving spiritual direction, and some of them started small communities of hermits.
It’s a very contemplative lifestyle. It’s not an easy life — you give up the world. We’re still in the world but notof the world. There’s a lot of self-discipline involved: Other religious are in community, so they’d go to prayer together, while I go to prayer by myself. You have to touch base with someone to make sure you’re staying on target and not going off the deep end in the woods by yourself — a spiritual director, a confessor. I touch base with my pastor occasionally. So you’re a loner, although you’re not really a lone ranger.
The funny thing is, you don’t realize that there are hermits out there until you become one, and then this whole world opens up. You find out that there are hermits everywhere, all over the world. They’re not all canonical, they’re not all Roman Catholic, but they’re out there.
How did you discern the call to become a hermit?
Looking back, I could see that the call came a long time ago. I think the vocation is kind of like a puzzle — the Lord throws out these clues along the way, and you may or may not recognize the clues at the time.
In 1987, I made a silent retreat, and I thought the Lord wanted me to leave my husband and my son and join a religious community. And I just thought, “Well, Lord, you can tell my husband.” [laughs] When my husband came to pick me up after the retreat, the first thing out of his mouth was, “You don’t want to go, do you?” I told him no. He said, “Well, you have to come home with me, but if something ever happens to me, you can come back.” [laughs]
The Sunday after the retreat, I met a woman who was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis — the lay order of a religious community. I thought, “I need to know more about that,” and eventually I decided to become a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, a contemplative order that has its roots in the hermits on Mt. Carmel. I was a secular Carmelite for 20 years.
After my husband died in July 2006, I knew that the Lord was calling me to a contemplative life, but where? Carmelites don’t have solitaries in the secular order, but because I felt this call, I looked into other religious communities. But some have age limits; some do not accept widows. I looked into the Carthusians; I visited the Camaldolese nuns, the Visitations, the Poor Clares; but each time I thought, “This is not where I’m supposed to be.”
I prayed, “Lord, where do you want me to go? What do you want me to do?” Eventually, I met a couple of hermits in Pennsylvania, and the more I talked with them, the more I could feel my heart jump for joy. I said, “I think I’m supposed to be a hermit. Now, what do I do with that?” I had to leave Carmel, which broke my heart, but the Father General [of the Carmelite order] explained: “You can’t have your foot in two religious communities at the same time.” Then it made sense to me: Even though this is not a religious community, you are becoming a religious.
What was the process like to become a canonical hermit in the archdiocese?
They didn’t have a process in place. At first I was told that the archdiocese wasn’t doing that anymore; apparently a couple women tried it, but it didn’t work out. But in December of 2008, I had been granted a meeting with [Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis] Madden, and I told him, “I know this is what I’m supposed to do.” By May the following year, Archbishop [Edwin] O’Brien sent me a letter saying he was giving me permission to start the process. His letter said the process usually takes five years, but with my background [in the Carmelites], the delegate for religious didn’t think it would take that long. I asked for permission for a commitment Mass for my family and friends, because they’re all out there scratching their heads, thinking I’m a kook. So I had a commitment Mass on September 26, 2009, and on September 13, 2010, I made my temporary vows.
What does your average day look like?
If you go back to the desert fathers, they say, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” That’s the kind of life it is. You’re in silence, you live simply. In a religious community, you would have a Rule; as a hermit, I have to create my own Rule and horarium, or daily schedule, and then the bishop has to approve it.
But the schedule is like life in a community: periods of time for work and prayer. You can be busy in your own place — this is a 100-year-old house that my grandfather built, so there’s always something to do. But unlike in a community, I have to do all the jobs in the house myself: I’m the cook, bottle-washer, and the maintenance man. I’m in charge of the whole hermitage.
It’s work and prayer — sometimes your work is your prayer.
Do you leave the house often, or have other people visit you?
No, I only go out in the morning for my errands and then have people come to me for spiritual direction.
How has that been for your family?
My husband John used to say, “If anything happens to me, Mary’s probably going in the convent,” so I think some people were expecting it more than I was. But it’s still been hard for them. My son and his wife have been very supportive from the very beginning, but they just had a baby, and they live five minutes away. . . It would be so easy if I packed my bag and went to the train station and kissed everybody goodbye, but that didn’t happen — I’m still in the neighborhood. I can see them occasionally, if they come for a visit, but they can’t stay for the whole day.
I gave up all of that to pray — to live in silence and solitude and simplicity. However, I can be in contact with people: I have an e-mail address and I’m in contact with other hermits and with my son. I have a phone, but after my family and friends came to my profession Mass, it stopped ringing. I think then people really understood a lot more.
Some people might look at the life you’ve chosen and think, “You’re just living by yourself, for yourself.” How do you explain the significance of your vocation to people who don’t understand the choice you’ve made?
I think a hermit’s vocation is to pray for everyone, and people feel free to ask. I have an intention book that I keep in the chapel on the altar between the Blessed Sacrament and the crucifix, so that it’s always before the Lord; and each time I go in, I try to remember the people who have asked for prayers. I think we’re the back-up power for them; we’re praying that all goes well for them. We pray for the whole world — not just the people across the street, but the world at large.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your life as a hermit so far?
The greatest challenge is living my vows every day. When I made my vow of poverty, it wasn’t just about giving up possessions, but to live a life where I could be possessed by the Lord — I’m His hands, His heart, whatever He needs me to be. As for obedience, my hope was to be obedient not only to the superiors and my ordinary, our archbishop, but to be obedient to the Commandments, and the commandment to love God with all my heart and soul and my neighbor as myself. And that’s enough for me to work on — so I’m busy trying to do that every day.
I think that’s the biggest challenge — just to live each day as I’m being called to live it.