A Holy Hermit

Saint Peter Damian

Feast Day: 21st February

After both his parents died while still a small child, Peter Damian was brought up by two older brothers - and what he learnt from each prepared him for a life of holiness.

One gave him a home but no affection, treating him like a slave whose work included looking after pigs. This experience, far from making Peter resentful, seems to have given him a love of humility and service. But his other brother took pity on him and sent him away to school where he made the most of this opportunity, becoming an excellent student with a great aptitude for learning. In time he was an outstanding professor known for his kindness to the poor, often entertaining them at his dinner table and serving them himself.

Peter began to think of retreating from the eleventh century world. He was already practising regular prayer and penance, and having by chance met two Benedictines he joined their hermitage, where he could enjoy a simple life of prayer and reading.

His teaming ability was now applied to the study of the Scriptures and won the respect of his fellow hermits. When the Abbot died in 1043 Peter took his place. He founded five new hermitages, all run on the principles of solitude, prayer and charity.

Peter's great learning and prolific writing eventually gained him the title of Doctor of the Church and in 1057 Pope Stephen IX brought him out of his solitude to become the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. He accepted this honour very reluctantly and eventually Pope Alexander II allowed him to return to the life of a simple monk.

Peter seems to have treated his monks with gentleness and fairness. He led by example, in self-denial, work and prayer. He loved to be busy and learned to make wooden spoons and other useful objects to occupy himself when not praying or working. Pope Alexander called on his services once more, to deal with a disciplinary problem in his hometown of Ravenna, and on the return journey he was taken ill with a fever and died at the monastery near Faenza on 22 February 1072.

Peter Damian was a man of learning and also of great wisdom. He was able to put to good use all his early experiences, both good and bad. He could have become a saint by following a distinguished academic career, or by holding high office in the Church, but he knew that for him the only way to holiness was to live as a hermit. We all have to choose a way of life which will bring us closer to God. Let us ask Saint Peter Damian to help us make that choice.