The following article is an excerpt from the book Wilderness Awakenings – A Photo Journal of Spiritual Awakening.
Throughout the centuries there have been many individuals who have left civilization behind and ventured deep into the wilderness for one reason or another. For most, especially those of our modern day, a stay in the wild is relatively short term. Thus, there has always been fascination and intrigue with those who trade the “world” for an extended stay in the wilderness, or, who even make that substitution a permanent one. Why do such people leave everything behind to live a solitary life in nature for weeks, months, or even years? What are they looking for? What do they do out there? Are they running away or escaping from something? Are they simply not fit to live in civilized society? The questions keep coming.
The stories of those rare individuals who live such lives of wild seclusion often become the subject matter of books, movies, and modern day legend. Individuals such as Dick Proenneke and Chris McCandless come to mind. Dick, in his 50s, left the “world” behind, built a little cabin in the Alaskan wildness and lived the rest of his life there, mostly alone, but very happy and successful, as the word “success” applies to surviving and truly thriving while living in nature. Chris, on the other hand, was a young man who also ventured alone into the wild of Alaska for an extended stay, but due to lack of preparedness and skill, he tragically starved and died there. Both stories have been made into bestselling books and films.
It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to sit down with such a person and find out what makes them tick, why they chose such a life, and how they actually live it. In the spring of 2008 I was blessed to have such an opportunity. On May 23rd of that year, I found myself taking the long way home from a trip to the Great Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee. Many hours, and hundreds of miles later, I was surrounded by yet another captivating, (though smaller), set of majestic peaks: the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri, a place I was quite familiar with and visit often. I didn’t take the extra-long, gas guzzling, more scenic route home just for the enjoyment of it though. I did so in order to keep an appointment which was years in the making.
That particular appointment was with Father Robert Matter, a Trappist monk, and priest who has lived much of his life in the solitude of nature as a hermit. It was a unique privilege and a true joy to be able to sit down and visit with such a man. In preparation for our meeting, I composed a list of interview questions, which I hoped would guide our discussion about his rather uncommon lifestyle, and also reveal some of Fr. Robert’s wisdom and insights.
I actually met Fr. Robert some fifteen years earlier upon my very first visit to Assumption Abbey. I should point out that Assumption Abbey is one of the most remote monasteries in the United States. And, by the way, they make AWESOME fruitcakes! The Abbey grounds consist of well over a thousand acres of rugged wilderness, which is then surrounded by the 1.5-million-acre Mark Twain National Forest. Needless to say, it is a dwelling of vast, wild solitude. At the time I first became acquainted with Fr. Robert, I was participating in a month-long workshop, which was focused on learning more about various styles of spirituality and religious vocations. The first part of the program began with a trip to the Abbey to discover more about monasticism and the distinctive style of a monk’s life. During the second day of our stay, a group of seven of us was given the opportunity to visit with Fr. Robert at his hermitage. It was a unique treat that I greatly looked forward to, as he rarely met with the public.
My initial reaction was that this humble, well-aged monk looked like something out of a movie, as he wore a long, impressive looking white beard from his chiseled face. His countenance was one of focused concentration, gentle piety, and quiet wisdom. He had a very peaceful demeanor about him. That afternoon, Fr. Robert told us briefly about his life and times as a hermit. He mentioned that God chooses some from humanity to focus solely on praying and sacrificing for humanity, which he believes is at the heart of his vocation and life. As the conversion continued, he gave us an overview of his particular style of spirituality and emphatically reminded us that we can’t give to others what we don’t have, namely, that of the intimate knowledge of God that comes through prayer. As our visit came to a close, he encouraged us to always strive to live a simple life, as he stated, “When we make our lives complex, we, (not God), create complex problems which we must then solve.”
I never forgot that initial encounter with Fr. Robert. Over the years, I found myself reflecting on it often, especially his departing words of wisdom to us that day. In the years that followed, I would see Father very briefly at Sunday Mass with the rest of the monks when I would make my annual visit to the Abbey, but I never had the opportunity to speak with him again until that day in May of 2008. It was something I looked forward to for a long time.
The Roots of a Wilderness Monk
Around 12:45 PM on that beautiful spring day, I followed a little hand-drawn map on a letter from Fr. Cyprian, the monk who kindly arranged my visit. I walked up a secluded dirt road to the top of a heavily forested hill, and around the bend was an even more secluded path, which led to Fr. Robert’s current hermitage. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, so I cautiously made my way to the screen door and slowly peeked in as if I were carefully examining a hornet’s nest. Looking right back at me through a pair of big plastic reading glasses, with a pleasant smile on his face, was the 82 and a half-year-old Fr. Robert, complete with that great white beard of his, now even longer. He graciously invited me in and we casually chatted as I set up my recording gear. There was a very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere about his hermitage. It truly felt like a spirit of love and sanctity was dwelling there. His humble home was a simple wooden structure with just the bare necessities of life. The only slight disturbance at his residence was the sound of the occasional vehicle passing through the Ozark hills somewhere in the distance.
When all was in order and my recording gear was running, we sat down in some sturdy wooden chairs and began a more detailed, concentrated conversation. The first thing I inquired about was Father’s upbringing and his general background. Some of my friends and associates back home that were aware of this upcoming interview were very curious as to what kind of environment a (future) hermit was raised in and came from. Was there some kind of personal tragedy, social deficiency, or profound divine revelation that ultimately drove this man to live a life of extreme solitude in the shadow of a Trappist monastery hidden away in the wilderness of the Ozark Mountains? Time would soon tell.
As I found out, Father was born in 1925 and grew up in a small, rustic area of Minnesota. He had a normal life for a lad of his day and age. As a teenager, he received his high school education in St. Cloud, where his family moved in the fallout of the Great Depression. At the age of 18, Fr. Robert tried to enlist in the Navy, but he was rejected due to a heart murmur. Just a few months later, however, he was drafted. The heart murmur was apparently overlooked that time, and he ended up serving for four years as a corpsman.
During those years in the military, Father noted that he reflected quite a bit on his life and thought seriously about becoming a priest. During his last six months of service, he decided that he was, in fact, being called to a religious vocation. Following the road to priesthood, he attended St. John’s University in Minnesota. As he continued to discern his vocation, he felt that the life of a parish priest/pastor would be too busy and hectic for him, and that perhaps he would be more suited to become a religious order priest. That is, a priest who lives and works with other priests in a communal setting, focused on a particular mission and way of life. Thus, he transferred to Crosier Seminary to pursue that path.
At a retreat (an extended period of prayer and discernment) during his first year of study, he came across a booklet, which described the different contemplative religious orders/communities in the Church, and he became interested in the monastic life. Something that sparked his interest in monasticism, even more, was a conversion he had with another student who had recently spent time with the Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. As time went on, Fr. Robert began to feel more and more drawn to the monastic life of silence, fasting, prayer, and penance. He recalled quite clearly, “That is what I wanted to do.”
During his second year at Crosier Seminary, he and another student made a retreat at the monastery of New Melleray, and that experience finally confirmed his call to the monastic life. After finishing up classes that semester in 1949, he moved on to join the monks in Iowa. A decade or so later, in 1963, Fr. Robert accompanied the Abbot of New Melleray on a visit to Assumption Abbey, in Ava, Missouri. Father recalls how he casually mentioned to the Abbot, “I wouldn’t mind it there at Assumption Abbey.” He thought nothing of his comment until the Abbot later decided to send him there for what was supposed to be a one year stay, while the Abbey was undergoing some changes. A few years later, in 1968, he was still there in the Ozark Mountains of Ava.
At this point in our conversation, while Father was reflecting on his roots, he stopped and noted that, even during his first days at New Melleray, he felt a deep calling to even more solitude. For those who are not familiar with Catholic monasticism, a Trappist monk lives in “community” with other monks, but his life is at the same time one of tremendous solitude and silence. It is a life that would truly drive most people of our busy, noisy, modern culture to insanity quite quickly. When Father mentioned that he felt he was called to even more solitude and silence, I was quite fascinated and surprised, to say the least.
As the story goes, it was in May of 1968 that Fr. Robert was given permission by his superiors to live as a hermit. One of the other monks helped him build a very small, simple, shack-like hermitage way up on top of one of the surrounding Ozark hills deep in the woods. He would have no electricity, running water, or much of anything to provide physical comfort, by modern standards. When all was eventually in order, and after an accidental fire that almost burned his new home to the ground, Father, at last, moved in.
After just a few years of finally being able to live the solitary life that he longed for and truly felt called to, he was asked to come back down off the mountain. In May of 1971, it was requested of him to be the superior of the community back at the monastery, and so in the following year, he was elected Abbot. He was re-elected to this leadership position once more in the early 80’s, but in 1986, he “finally had enough” and was able to go back to his beloved hermitage. Though he has lived in a couple of different hermitages over the years since then, he has continued full time in the eremitic life ever since.
Fr. Robert said to me that the reason he wanted to go into the hermitage and live in the wilderness in the first place was, “To really feel and experience true loneliness. In doing so, I would turn to God and develop a life of prayer, or I would start climbing the walls. However, when I got there, it felt like home, there was a great sense of peace and it’s been that way ever since. That’s how I knew that this was my vocation from God and I no longer had any doubts.”
Q & A with a Hermit Monk
After listening to Fr. Robert’s most interesting background story, I tried to focus in on more specific questions that I wanted to ask him about regarding his life of solitude in nature and his vocation. What follows is an account of our conversation.
Joe: “How would you describe the monastic life…its nature, purpose & mission?”
Fr. Robert: “The purpose of the monastic life is to be at the heart of the Church, to pray for the entire world, for missionaries everywhere, to offer penance (reparation for the sins of the world), but more than that, and most importantly, to give glory to God. Everything else that we do flows from our purpose of glorifying God.”
Joe: “When you entered the monastic life, did you have any specific goals or expectations?”
Fr. Robert: “Well, when I entered, I expected the worst. (Laughs). Actually, I was looking forward to ‘dying to self.’ Even as a young kid, I was fed up with the ‘world.’ I don’t know what it was. I came here to ‘die a happy death.’ I realized, first of all, that it was God’s calling for me. That this is the way he wanted me to live. However, even at the beginning of my vocation, I realized that I was being called to the eremitic life, so what happens? I get out of the novitiate (an introductory training program) after six months, and I was put in as a sub-master for the new novices. At the time, New Melleray was very large, so I had to take care of all the exterior and material needs of the novices. This required a lot of talking back and forth (only with them of course) and so I realized that my dream of being a book on a shelf, never touched, never opened, and never looked at, was going to go down the drain (laughter).
When the superior announced that I was going to be the sub-master, I just dropped! It felt like the floor went out from under me. I was angry because I knew my life was going to be so involved. After the meeting with the superior when I was made sub-master, I went into the room where the novices were and saw a picture on the desk which said, ‘In God We Trust,’ and I was so mad that I took that picture, threw it in the waste can and walked out. (More laughs) I was really upset! So about an hour later, I came back, took the picture out of the trashcan and everything was fine. I resolved that this was God’s will for me at the time, and I became quite happy with it all.”
Joe: “What have been the most fulfilling and the most challenging aspects of monastic life for you?”
Fr. Robert: “I can sum it up in one word, community. That aspect is the most fulfilling, and at the same time, the most challenging. (Laughs). It’s true! It’s a blessing and it’s a curse. The challenging part of it is that it makes you more Christ-like. It takes the negative things out of you. It makes you realize where you have to grow, and then you become what you are supposed to be. Still, I’ve always been happy in the monastic life. The eremitic vocation has simply been an outgrowth of the monastic life. St. Benedict in his Rule (the classic handbook for western monasticism) states that after one has been in the monastic life for a number of years and then feels they have an eremitic vocation, they should be allowed to pursue it.”
Joe: “What are some of the doubts, worries, or fears that you’ve experienced in your particular vocation and way of life?”
Fr. Robert: “One of my biggest fears is to have to go back to the community life and being drawn out of the hermitage, but that hasn’t happened. We are a small community and they have always respected my vocation. I guess….hmmm…I don’t really have any fears. Even if Assumption Abbey would have to close for some reason, well then, I guess we have to close. It’s whatever God wants. If he wants us to close, then we’ll do so. If he wants us to keep going, then we’ll keep going. Whatever he wants is fine. Whenever any kind of fear or worry comes up, I just surrender it to the will of God. That’s where my peace is.”
The Eremitic Life
At this point in our conversation, I wanted to focus more precisely on Father’s vocation and life as a hermit living in the wilderness. Here is what followed…
Joe: “To shift gears a little bit now, I’d like to talk about your life more specifically as a hermit. For starters, how would you define the term ‘hermit’?”
Fr. Robert: “I call myself an ‘iconoclastic hermit.’ The iconoclastic heresy of old was the mistaken idea that all religious images were ‘idols,’ and so there was the notion of destroying them, of getting rid of them all, no more pictures or statues of Jesus, Mary, or the saints, you know. And so I kind of use that term to describe myself in that, I wanted to destroy all the ‘images’ of a hermit that anyone ever held…including myself. It’s not good to try to live up to an image, because you can never do it, so I came to live life as I saw it, at each moment.”
Joe: “Could you elaborate a little bit more about when you were living in community life? What was the most motivating factor for you to separate yourself from the community and live in total solitude in the wilderness?”
Fr. Robert: “There was nothing about community life, with the brothers that drove me away. There was just always this need for more solitude. I wanted to have more silence, more prayer. Not that you can’t do it in the monastery, or even outside in the ‘world,’ because we have to, everybody has to, but I felt that I had to have a quieter place for my particular needs.”
Joe: “Could you describe for me a day in the life of a hermit? What does your average day entail?”
Fr. Robert: “On my average day, I get up at 1:00 AM. I find that the morning is the best time for praying. It’s quiet, even nature is quiet at that time. So I spend the first couple hours in prayer, but that depends on how the Spirit is moving. Sometimes I’ll spend four hours or so in prayer instead of two or three. That time is not always spent in ‘prayer’ (in the purest sense of the word) but I’m always there, and I have the Blessed Sacrament here, so I find that to be a tremendous help. (The Blessed Sacrament is the consecrated bread used during the celebration of Mass, which Catholics believe contains the true presence of Jesus Christ.) Along with that, I have pretty much the same prayer schedule as they do down at the monastery. (A monk’s day is structured around set times of prayer called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. The hours go by such names as Vigils, Terce, Compline, Vespers, etc.) So after my four hours of prayer, I’ll come down (he has a little loft area in his hermitage where he prays) and do a little exercise. Then I’ll go into vigils, which will take me about thirty to forty-five minutes, then after that, I’ll come back down again and eat breakfast, which is not much, some bread and an apple. I stopped drinking coffee long ago (laughs).
After breakfast, I’ll go outside, pray the rosary and do a few things around here, and then I’ll say Morning Prayer, followed by Mass. I use that desk over there for an altar too. About a half hour after Mass, I’ll say Terce, followed by some reading till about 10:30 AM, and then it will be time for my mid-day prayer and dinner at 11:00 AM. After dinner, I’ll clean up my dishes, and if I haven’t said a rosary by then, I’ll go ahead and pray it, or do some more reading till about 2:00 PM. In the afternoon, I work. I’m a nut sorter, I’ve been sorting ‘nuts’ all my life (laughs) so I guess I’m pretty good at it by now. Really, I sort nuts, pecans, walnuts, etc., for the fruitcake bakery at the monastery, and I also do the laundry for the guest house on Saturdays. After my afternoon work, I’ll pray Vespers, have supper, do some more reading, and by 6:30 PM, pray Compline and go to bed around 7:00 PM. So basically, I plan what time I’m going to get up, when to go to bed, what I’m going to eat, and the rest of the time is filled with prayer, work, and other things.”
Joe: “We talked a little bit about what has brought you satisfaction and joy in the monastic life, but what more specifically as a hermit living in nature has brought you the greatest joy?”
Fr. Robert: “My prayer life. But I experience more and more what St. Teresa experienced: that dryness at times. It’s all a part of faith, the Lord continues to come through even in those dry times. There is a little saying that I keep in mind in such times; ‘Our faith to face vision of God is like a shining light that grows in brightness until we experience our face to face vision of God.’ But in order to grow in brilliance, it has to be exercised. And that is why God withdraws himself at times, so you can exercise your faith. But every time you go through that dryness, the brilliance of God’s presence becomes stronger and your experience of him becomes more profound too.”
Joe: “Specifically as a hermit, what’s been the most difficult/challenging thing about living in solitude out here in the wilderness?”
Fr. Robert: “I’ve never really found anything difficult about it. Like I mentioned, being called away from the hermitage years ago was very hard, but that’s been it.”
Joe: “We talked about the primary mission and purpose of the monastic life; praying and doing penance for the world, glorifying God, etc. What would you say is the primary mission and purpose of an eremitic vocation, living as a hermit? Is there more of a focus in any of those areas?”
Fr. Robert: “It’s pretty much the same, but much more intense.”
Joe: “Here is a very common question that priests and individuals in religious vocations get asked often, and I’m sure people are wondering even more so about your particular way of life. ‘Do you get lonely?’ What would you say is the difference between loneliness and solitude?”
Fr. Robert: “Loneliness, I’ve never really experienced. I constantly keep my communication going with the Lord, and so in other words, I’m not alone, I have the Lord with me, and that’s what solitude is. Before I entered New Melleray Abbey, my sister asked me why I would ever want to join the Trappists since I like to talk so much. (Laughs) It’s just one of those things, I guess.”
Joe: “You mentioned that you work down at the monastery at certain times. In the midst of that, do you interact much with the community down there? Do you see family or deal much with the public or the outside world?”
Fr. Robert: “I go to the Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Arkansas, about four times a year now to be available to the monks if they want to talk. It helps to have someone from outside their community to talk about things at times. With family, I’ve gone home several times over the years and they can come and visit, but there has to be some reason for me to go. I don’t just leave for a ‘vacation’ of some kind.”
Joe: “There are many religious as well as secular individuals who over the years have pursued a solitary life in order to discover things like the ‘core of who they are’, what truly makes them happy, what the ultimate purpose of their existence is, and things of that nature. How would you respond, or describe those ideals for yourself?”
Fr. Robert: “Well, first of all, I didn’t come here for myself. I came to find, and to be with Christ. That has been my focus. But in that process, you find out who you are, you see who and what you truly are. So my main focus is on Christ, but through him it comes back to me, to become more Christ-like. Seeking Christ is the joy of my life. Without that, I might as well not be here.”
Joe: “The major criticism of those who pursue a religious vocation, and especially those individuals (either religious or secular) who live a solitary life hidden away in the wilderness, is that it is a form of escapism, that it is a selfish lifestyle, that they are running away from something. What would your response to that be?”
Fr. Robert: “That’s true. For some, it can be a form of escapism. But as an Abbot once told me, ‘You’ll have to ask the Holy Spirit about it. He’s the one who called me to this life.’ (Laughs). That’s why you have to really discern your vocation. Because there is so much of that going on, escapism, especially nowadays, we see it here. But the more I hear about what’s going on outside in the world, about the ‘communication explosion,’ it’s going to be harder for younger people to come in (to a monastic/solitary life) and really settle down. Young people are in contact with their friends 24 hours a day with all the phones and pictures and all those things. For a person to enter into this kind of life today, it would have to be a person who is fed up with all the gadgetry, and also a person who is sure of why he is pursuing this life. If it’s just because he’s fed up, it will never work. But if he’s fed up because it is keeping him from a deeper way of life, then he can start looking at it.”
Joe: “What is the most important insight or lesson you’ve learned in your life thus far as a monk, a priest, and a hermit living in nature?”
Fr. Robert: “Perseverance. Not just perseverance, but perseverance with a steadfast heart, faithful spirit, and heartfelt devotion. You can persevere at something by just dragging your feet with your chin on the ground, (laughs) but it really needs to be the other way. Perseverance is the hardest thing to do, with any way of life, especially married life.”
Joe: “There is the perception that religious, monks, hermits, etc., encounter or experience the divine, as well as evil, in more direct ways than those ‘in the world.’ Could you describe how you experience and encounter God, as well as evil, in your life?”
Fr. Robert: “An important distinction, first of all, is that in my prayer life, I’m not here to necessarily experience God, but to worship God and to give myself to him. If he wants to manifest himself to me in a particular way, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too. That’s a tough lesson to learn. As far as evil, you really do experience the evil in yourself when you are seeking God. You see all the negative things in you, and that can be disturbing -(laughs)- to say the least! It’s in us, the anger, jealousy, lust, and all the rest of it. They call it the seven capital sins in the Church, but the early monastic fathers called it the ‘eight logi,’ or, eight thoughts, which include gluttony, lust, things (materialism), anger, dejection, sloth, vanity, and pride. We all face that battle.
Spiritual combat, that’s what the monastic life is all about, fighting the evil that is within us. There was a song that I always kept in mind before going into the monastery, and I still reflect on it now: ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess around with Mr. In-between.’ (Laughs) You get rid of the negative by emphasizing the positive, by working on love. By doing that, the evil in you gradually leaves you. It’s like oil and water. The oil stays on top, but if you pour enough water in, the oil eventually is forced out by the overflow of water. So again, accentuating love is what gets rid of the evil.”
Joe: “That’s a neat analogy, I like that! Here is a question someone had in mind for me to ask you, how has your life of solitude helped you to effectively demonstrate the love of God?”
Fr. Robert: “By being present to God, by being faithful and recollected in my vocation. And of course by sharing his love with others when I’m at the monastery, with visitors, etc. That’s one of the good things about having to go back to the monastery and having to communicate with others at times. It’s another opportunity to share that love.”
Joe: “Here’s a very simple question many are curious about. Do you keep in touch with the current state of the world, with political, social, and cultural issues?”
Fr. Robert: “I really don’t. I can recall how back home when my dad would be listening to the news, afterward he’d get very upset! (Laughs).”
Joe: “Yeah, my dad does the same thing! (Laughs).”
Fr. Robert: “If there is anything that has to be known, I’ll hear about it. But I don’t have a TV, or a radio, or anything like that. The more thoughts you get in your mind, the harder they are to get out, especially at times of prayer. With all the advertising that goes on now, you can’t look at anything without being bombarded with useless information. I don’t have a need for any of that. I don’t feel the need for a computer or a phone, or any of that. I have a phone (laughs) but I rarely use it. I don’t need a 1-800 number to call God (laughs). If I were a writer, I could see where a computer would come in handy, but since I’m not, I just don’t have a need for it.”
Joe: “To switch gears a little, by means of our baptism in the Church, we as Christians believe that we are called to share in the life and ministry of Jesus as ‘priest, prophet, and king.’ How do you fulfill those as a hermit living in nature?”
Fr. Robert: “Well, I do offer Mass every day.”(Laughs).
Joe: “Yes, well, the ‘priest’ part is obvious, but what about the other two areas of prophet and king?”
Fr. Robert: “I suppose that my way of life is how I live out the call to be a ‘prophet,’ it’s countercultural. (Thinks in silence for a moment). I guess I really don’t consciously concentrate on how I fulfill those roles. I just focus on what I’m supposed to be doing here, my life of prayer and being with the Lord. I don’t think in terms of all those categories, to put it that way.”
Joe: “In Luke 8:11-15, we read about the parable of the seed and the sower. What aspect of your life chokes out the Word of God? What doesn’t allow God’s voice to take root?”
Fr. Robert: “All those distracting thoughts that we talked about. That’s the big one. You can’t help it. For me, it’s thoughts of the past or the future. You can’t help but think about such things, of course, but I do. It’s mainly thoughts of things in my past life. Sometimes, when I go down to the monastery, I’ll have these thoughts of past experiences or I’ll hear something from someone, and those kinds of things can come in and choke the word out.”
Joe: “There is a commonly held notion that the joy and happiness in our lives are only real, or of value, when it is shared with others, and that human relationships are the most essential component of our lives. As one who lives in the solitude of nature, what are your thoughts on that?”
Fr. Robert: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
Fr. Robert: “True man and true God?”
Fr. Robert: “There is my human interaction.” (Laughs with an affirmative tone). Those are certainly legitimate concerns, but if you have been called to a life of solitude in order to develop a closer relationship with God, that relationship reaches a fullness in the living out of that call.”
Joe: “As we know, the ultimate expression of the love of Christ is a self-sacrificing love, sharing it with others and giving it away. What is your primary avenue of sharing the self-sacrificing love of Christ out here in the solitude of the wilderness?”
Fr. Robert: “That is a challenge that comes to mind every once in a while, the social aspect of sharing God’s love with others, helping the poor, etc. And that is what the community is about. To love and serve each other and to give charity, as a community, to those in need. We give at least 10 percent of what we earn (from the bakery) to charity. But as far as the hands-on aspect, that is one of the big temptations at times that draws people out of the monastery, especially younger people. That’s why one has to be convinced that this is their vocation, that God has called them to this. If he wants you to be out in the world doing some hands-on work, he will make it known to you. Our prayer, fasting, and penance are our ‘work,’ and the expression of our love for the world.”
The Spirituality of a Hermit
For this final phase of our visit, I asked Fr. Robert some questions on the subject of prayer and spirituality. Here is what he had to say on the matter….
Joe: “As we know, there are lots of theologians who write on the topics of prayer and spirituality, and there are thousands of books on the subject, but how would you personally define spirituality?”
Fr. Robert: “(Laughs) How would I define spirituality? (Laughs some more) By simply finding time to live for the Lord. (Pauses to reflect for a few moments) Our Lord, in speaking to the Samaritan woman, said that there will come a time when you ‘worship in spirit and in truth.’ I was thinking about that the other day, and it came to me while celebrating Mass. When I raised the chalice up, that this is what I do, live in Jesus, with Jesus, through Jesus, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. That’s the essence of my spiritual life. Prayer then, is simply being in the life of God”
Joe: “What styles, forms, or expressions of prayer do you most utilize and gravitate to in your vocation as a monk and as a hermit?”
Fr. Robert: “The rosary is my constant source of ‘vocal prayer’ along with the Mass and the office of course. But most of my prayer is just quiet prayer, being silent with God.”
Joe: “Along with that then, could you talk about the importance of silence?”
Fr. Robert: “We need silence so we can hear what is going on in ourselves…what is really going on. That’s why I think so many people always have to have music or something going in the background to constantly distract them, so they can’t hear themselves. To truly come to know yourself, and to do so well, takes silence. There has to be silence to be able to hear what the Lord is saying.”
Joe: “As a hermit, what are your greatest joys and struggles with prayer?”
Fr. Robert: “The greatest struggle is the dryness that comes at times. There are often long periods of dryness, but of course, the joys come too, like dew on the dry grass. But as I mentioned earlier, you have to persevere in that. You have to keep going forward steadily with it, no matter how you feel. That’s an important thing. We can’t live our lives just on feelings. They are important, but we can’t base our lives (especially spiritual lives) on them. Faith is what is important, and living by faith can be a pretty hard thing to do at times.”
Joe: “To bring things to a close, what would your words of wisdom be for the person living ‘in the world’ with all its fast-paced craziness that we experience in our present day?”
Fr. Robert: “In scripture, Jesus asks the rhetorical question, ‘Do you think that when I come I will find faith?’ Faith is the most important thing in our life. No matter how busy we are, we have to maintain our faith in God and not let it go. ‘Do you think I will find faith?’ There are so many things outside that are drawing us away from faith. We have to come back to it, and that is where spending time in solitude comes in, to get back to our roots. If we lose our faith, we’ve lost everything. So no matter how busy you are in your life, you have to find some time to get some solitude and silence and get back to your roots with the Lord.”
Fr. Robert: “Have you ever heard of Catherine de Hueck Doherty? Here is something she wrote.” (At this point Father hands me a dusty, old, tattered and stain covered cardboard picture frame with these words in the center:)
“Remember that you are going to the desert for the following reasons:
-To live in silence.
-So that you might die to yourself quicker, so that Christ might grow in you faster. So
that you might give him to the world faster too….this world that is so hungry for him.
-To atone for your sins and those of others.
-To pray for all humanity.
-To pray for peace.
-To pray for the mission and unity amongst Christians in the Church.
-To become saints faster, i.e., lovers of Christ in truth and in deed.
-To imitate Christ.
-To save your soul and those of others.
-To learn total surrender to Christ quicker.
We have made him wait long enough!”
Fr. Robert: “That would be a summation of what I have come to do. In a nutshell, that’s what I’m all about.”
Joe: “Excellent! Any concluding thoughts you’d like to share?”
Fr. Robert: “To make God number one in your life. He’s got to be number one, not number two. Even in married life, he has to be number one. He is what holds you together. If he isn’t there, everything will fall apart. There is no substitute!”
Back to the World
With Fr. Robert’s final words of wisdom resonating in my heart, our time together had come to an end and I found myself beginning my journey home, back to the “world” of civilization. As I drove over the hills and through the woods of the Missouri Ozark Mountains, I was filled with a spirit of peace and refreshment. I was extremely grateful for the blessing of that which I had experienced with the stunning beauty of nature, but much more so, the beauty of the wisdom I had encountered in this wise, old man of the wilderness. As I often share with others, there is an incarnate wisdom to be found in the wild, but in the case of my time with Fr. Robert, that wisdom was truly incarnate, manifested and embodied in the gentle soul of this monk who lived alone in nature.
My time with this holy man was a great reminder about the many life lessons learned in the wilderness. Fr. Robert is a living witness and a prophetic voice who teaches us that nature, in and of itself, is not what we seek as human beings, but rather, what happens in the solitude of nature is what we long for and crave. We seek connectedness with creation, but much more so, whether consciously or unconsciously, we seek connectedness with our Creator. It’s interesting to note that the word “religion” actually means to “reconnect,” as that is the point of it all. It’s this reconnection with God, God’s creation, one another, and ourselves, that brings about a great awakening and a renewal of our nature as human beings.
All of the good that we seek in creation is ultimately found in God, who is its source. While the presence of God can certainly be found and experienced in the solitude of nature, where worldly distractions are greatly minimized, our Creator is found most perfectly in the love which is present in the human heart. This love is the masterpiece of God’s creation. The human heart was not created to be indifferent, but rather, it is a dwelling meant to be filled with goodness, truth, freedom, wisdom, compassion, peace, joy, and every positive virtue, as these are the things which fill our beings, and our world, with life and love. This is the paradise that we seek and long for. It is found in exploring the vast wilderness of the human soul, whose beauty knows no bounds. Upon finding it, experiencing it, and sharing it, we come to echo the words of St. Paul, “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has planned for those who love him.” This is the love, which patiently waits to be awakened within us all.
End Note: This article was orignally written several years ago. Fr. Matter has since passed on. He died on November 10, 2017 at the age of 92.
(Stay up to date on new blog posts and media by subscribing to our newsletter. Go to the bottom of the home page and sign up today!)