Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Franciscan Hermitage? Welcome to St. Clare's in Sebastopol, California

What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘hermit’ or ‘hermitage’?
A magnificent palace/museum of the same name built by Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia?....

A mountain aerie inhabited by a gnome-like holy man lost in deep meditation?....

Well, guess again. Welcome to the St. Clare Hermitage—a uniquely Franciscan place of prayer and rest… and yes, a bountiful measure of joy!

Envision, instead, a tiny, ‘postage stamp farm’: a nine-acre site just outside of the town of Sebastopol in exurban Sonoma County, about an hour by car north of San Francisco. A half-dozen rustic cottages on wooded meadowland, circling a small pond close by. Prepare for a warm and gracious welcome in the person of our Brother Mateo Guerrero, the resident friar at St. Clare’s. And get ready to sit one down immediately to a cup of freshly brewed coffee with an obligatory plate full of homemade brownies and oatmeal cookies.

Mateo smiles with good reason. He has seen more than a few miracles in the six years he has been at St. Clare’s: “Here I can choose how radically I want to live the Franciscan life,” he reveals, jumping into the heart of the hermitage experience. “It’s about learning to say ‘yes’ to what the poor have no choice about…. Here, we have no official support whatsoever. No allowance, no regular income. Just the neighbors. And friends. People just show up at the door with eggs, produce, flowers. People give. There is real power in being fragile, vulnerable, not having. It gives other people the chance to give. Yes, we may have to move one day. But then again, maybe not. We’ll just see what the Lord has in store and go along with that.”

Before we go on any further, though, let’s backtrack a bit. Yes, St. Clare’s is a real hermitage—but in a particularly Franciscan sense. And Brother Mateo is really a hermit -- also in that same particularly Franciscan sense. So, after nearly 800 years, what exactly does it mean to be a hermit in the “particularly Franciscan sense”? According to his earliest biographers, Francis himself always felt drawn to remote places…. “After he had renounced the world at the court of the Bishop of Assisi, he spent the next several years living as a hermit…. And when Francis and his eleven companions returned to the Spoleto valley from Rome after their Rule had been approved in 1209, they first discussed among themselves whether they should live strictly as hermits or live a mixed life of prayer for the salvation of souls.” (Omnibus, p. 71).

Eventually, Francis and his companions did select the ‘mixed life’ combining contemplation and active ministry, but our founder made provision for the expression of eremetical piety in the form of a special Rule for Hermitages. In brief, 3-4 friars were to live together for a limited period of time. They would divide themselves into “mothers” and “sons”/ “Marys and Marthas”, if you will. The “mothers” provided for the material needs of the “sons” and protected them from disruptions to their prayer. After a period of time, they would reverse roles. The main thrust of the eremitcal life among Franciscans then and now has been to provide a period of rest and spiritual renewal from the struggles of active ministry, rather than a long-term commitment dedicated to this one lifestyle.

Franciscan hermitages are relatively common in Europe today, and relatively rare in North America. Brother Mateo, initially joined by Friar Rob Young, began the first project in the Province of St. Barbara in 2003. It was an idea which had been percolating in Mateo’s mind and heart for decades, though, finally reaching fruition in the establishment of the St. Clare Hermitage. As Mateo himself explains:

“I entered the community at the age of 18, going on 10. After a period of time, I found myself in a spiritual rut and left on a ‘leave of absence’ for nearly 10 years. I realized my own ‘greenness’ and lack of worldly understanding. I led my life among the rich and the famous, working as a private cook. But all the money in the world can’t bring you happiness. Eventually, I felt the Lord calling me back.

“For me, (the contemplative life) for us Franciscans is tapping into who we really are. St. Francis spent much of his life in hermitages and look at how productive he was!.... (We need to take time to) rest with our Beloved, with Jesus. If you don’t have a personal encounter with Him, there is something wrong. You need to be alone with the Beloved…. (I believe) there’s something to be said about bringing out that fire in prayer…. It feeds us, gives us a reason to continue, and gives us inner strength. Saying ‘yes’ to Jesus, not from the mind, but from the heart."

After years of searching for a suitable property for a hermitage, Brother Mateo learned about the Sebastopol site. Originally a small family farm, the Vaughn Ranch, the nine-acre parcel was acquired by the St. Anthony Foundation in the early 1950s as a rehabilitation center for men. Up to 30 residents at one time were involved in the project, which initially included a small candlemaking concern and a projected Christmas tree farm. The land was unsuitable for cultivation, however, and lack of ready well water jinxed the endeavor. The Farm moved to a larger site several miles away and shifted its focus to dairy products. Meanwhile, a group of Dominican sisters moved into the small bungalows on the site and stayed for nearly thirty years, before Mateo ‘inherited’ the site six years ago.

Friars and others come for various periods of spiritual rest and renewal—anywhere from several days to several weeks. The air is fresh; the neighborhood astoundingly quiet; the night sky, often crowded with stars. And the food is incredible.... Each visitor contributes according to her/his means and inclinations; there is never a “charge’ for anything. In terms of maintenance and upkeep, a faithful group of local supporters, representing a variety of faith traditions—or none—have made the hermitage into their own labor of love. E

In terms of the rhythm of daily prayer, or ‘horarium’, St. Clare’s offers regular morning and afternoon recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. There is Eucharist when a priest is available. Devotional prayer including the rosary and a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament also available. Everything is optional for guests, many of whom just need time to rest deeply in the Lord: . “The schedule serves us; we don’t serve the schedule. Of course, we need to be flexible and sensitive to people’s needs. But it should also ‘pinch’ a bit, be just a little uncomfortable to help one grow.” The response to the spiritual offerings of the hermitage has been gratifying, especially among lay friends: “People come to our 24-hour vigils at every hour of the night and day. You really see their devotion; the sacrifices they are willing to make.”

Brother Mateo’s dream is to maintain a stable, ongoing place of rest and welcome to all: “Hospitality goes such a long way toward healing, towards opening the door (of one’s heart) to Jesus.” This is immediately apparent in the small touches of welcome everywhere: flowers in the rooms; a jar jammed with homemade cookies; signature gourmet meals that Mateo—a master chef-- just ‘throws’ together—simple, healthful ingredients combined with a great deal of care.

Pressing financial burdens in these difficult times have made it necessary to put the property on the market recently. Consequently, the hermitage may have to find another home at some point, but Brother Mateo remains optimistic about future prospects. And at age 73 (he looks decades younger), he is still not afraid to dream boldly: “One has to accept this and let go. But we’ll keep going, no doubt about that. This way of life requires hope! We need to rekindle the flame, that first love of Jesus and Francis we have experienced….The hermitage will go on; contemplation is, after all, at the heart of our Franciscan life.” Amen, Brother!//

P.S.: Since posting this blog, we have received a number of requests about how to make donations or contact St. Clare Hermitage. You can reach: Br. Mateo Guerrero, ofm, St. Clare Hermitage, 6501 Orchard Station Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472. Tel. 707/792-5033. Note: Br. Mateo does NOT have email.... ct//


Anonymous said...

Fr. Chuck, thank you for such a beautiful description of what sounds like an astounding place. Surely it can be saved! Is there a way to donate to St. Clare's?

Ruth said...

THANK YOU for posting this article. Where could one find out more information about how to live this kind of Franciscan life?

Joyful Catholics said...

I'm very drawn to hermitages...and simplifying our life. I'm married, but we're empty nesters and wondered if there's a place for married people in a more eremetical lifestyle? Do you know of "married hermits?" Is there such a thing? I've heard that some saints of old, who were married, did live that life. I only wish you were in Nebraska or closer than California. There is a hermitage in Wisconsin that I visited in April. Sr. Mary is a Carmelite who got special permission and blessing by Bishop Raymond Burke at the time, to live her hermit life on the 26 acres as Hermitage of St Mary. I hope there will be more of these beautiful places around for those of us who LONG for peace, solitude, and repose from the noisy and busy life in our hectic world. PAX CHRISTI

Anonymous said...

Brother Mateo is an incredible asset to the Diocese of Santa Rosa. He has an amazing sense of peace about him & he makes the life of Jesus come alive as he describes scenes from the New Testament. He beautifies St. Joseph's Church with his decorating for special feasts. He gives & gives & expects nothing in return. He's an amazing pastry chef/baker & delights in pleasing others with his treasures. What a gentle & loving soul he is! What a blessing he is to our community. Janice

Bonnie said...

I was blessed to be at San Damiano Retreat House, as a Lay Ministry Volunteer, when Brother Mateo was in charge of the delicious food he served with such great love. I learned a great deal from him and that was in 1984. His culinary expertise and overall brilliance were second to his kind and tender heart. I am so grateful I found him again. I will be writing to him. Blessings to all...