By Kevin Wells (Originally published in Crisis)
A short time ago, in the Maryland countryside, a priest the humble folk say bears a resemblance to Maximilian Kolbe turned on the ignition of his old silver pick-up and eased out of the parking lot of his St. Michael’s parish. He shifted into second gear and passed by a group of swollen-eyed parishioners standing by the Pennsylvania-fieldstone Marian grotto he had built for them a few weeks prior. The priest grinned behind his long, white beard, turned right, and drove past his neighbor’s strutting peacocks whose shrieks often interrupted his pre-dawn nocturns.
Fr. Martin Flum drove west until—poof—his high-mileage truck and faded MARY-land bumper sticker disappeared at a bend in the road.
He has vanished.
He will never be seen again. Those left standing in the parking lot—the same lot he repaved for them just a few days earlier, could finally cry. To most that day, it seemed a guillotine had split their soul—one half would hold memories, the other was left to mourn. The parishioners’ pinhole of consolation, though, was knowledge of Fr. Flum’s destination: their spiritual father, they knew, would soon begin to annihilate every level of comfort to spend the remainder of his life as a consecrated hermit, offering his life as a slave to Mary and her Fatima plea.
“No deep conviction is aroused in the incredulous until they see the scarred hands and the broken heart of the priest who is a victim with Christ,” Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote. “The mortified priest, the priest who is detached from the world—these inspire, edify, and Christify souls.”
Fr. Flum is in a forest now, where he believes he may soon war with Satan; he will spend the remainder of his priesthood in the 11’ x 14’ cell he built on property owned by an order of cloistered nuns. The peal of monastery bells that marks his hours, marks his days of invisible union with God, can barely be heard through the thicket of tens of thousands of trees. He will spend the remainder of his days alone with God in silence.
For a long span in 2020-2021, the people of this town in Maryland—a town with no stop lights, where farmers plow fields and chop their own firewood, and night skies are choked with stars—felt they lived alongside a sacred heirloom; an old ghost in a faded cassock from more ordered days. Although Baden is scattered with hardy souls, townsfolk today still stop mid-sentence and stare into fixed points in space at the mention of Fr. Flum’s name. These humble Catholics know the uncalculated and unbroken care he gave them when bishops worldwide, startlingly, began to lock church doors when springtime flowers began to bud in 2020.
When Masses went dark, these startled country folk looked to their pastor, who they already regarded as a holy and uncommon priest. When the Catholic world caved, Fr. Flum smiled through that bushy white beard. The secret of his shepherding in those days will forever be buried in these country folks’ bloodstream, but one thing is clear: throughout the pandemic, they anchored themselves within the bosom of his fatherly care for them.
“He was a father to my soul when churches closed,” a former St. Michael’s parishioner said. “He began to take on what it seemed few other priests would. Without saying a thing, he led as a shepherd must. There seemed to be a holy intensity for his lonely flock.”
Fr. Flum’s spiritual work has become legendary because he didn’t allow the public denial of the sacraments to halt his work to sanctify the souls entrusted to his care. During the pandemic here, an alcoholic stopped drinking. A young man entered the seminary. A young lady began discerning religious life. An antagonized couple’s marriage was healed. A family was brought into the Church. The list runs on; all unfolding while church doors were locked.
It is true. Fr. Flum is gone now. In these bizarre days of canceled priests, he has, in a sense, canceled himself to abandon himself entirely to God. Many in the humble town, though, simply believe Fr. Flum has offered his life as a poured chalice of unceasing prayer and penance to help redirect a restless and suffering world. Although they agonize over his departure, they know why he made the decision: he felt a call within a call to offer himself as a holocaust to beg God’s mercy on His sin-stained Church and her lukewarm, and even fervent, clergy. An immovable icon of Fr. Flum now lives in his former parishioners. It is the image of a slaughtered lamb.
“[The priest] drags the whole of humanity to the altar, where he joins heaven and earth together,” Archbishop Sheen wrote. “It avails us not to be priests unless we are victims, for only those who die with Him will live with Him.”
Fr. Flum’s days begin beneath moonlight, usually at around 3 a.m. He makes the sign of the cross and recollects the passion of Christ to help him imitate the crucified Lord throughout the day. The first of his Liturgy of the Hours is much fuller, richer, and longer than the one prayed by almost all other clergy. The hermit is given more psalms and nocturns to pray and contemplate. His first office, if prayed with love, will unfold in an hour.
In an age when churches are emptying, Fr. Flum centered his priesthood on Our Lady of Fatima’s request for penances for poor sinners. His cell has no heat, plumbing, or electricity. A rain catcher captures his drinking water, a small garden provides his sustenance. Often, he’ll make all-night vigils until he curls his body for sleep before the monstrance. His entire “house” is a chapel no larger than your childhood bedroom.
Although the life of a consecrated hermit is largely lost from sight in the Catholic Church, Fr. Flum—like St. Dominic Loricatus, Pope Celestine V, St. Charbel, and others before him—believes that throughout Christendom, God has consistently cooperated with those willing to offer “invisible” acts of unceasing prayer, penance, and mortification.
“There is a description from a Church Father that there was a city caught up in sin—but it was left alone by demons, who instead attacked the monastery outside the city gates,” Fr. Flum said. “The demons knew they had to work harder to destroy the city by harassing and destroying the prayers of the monks who had offered themselves for that city.”
In a very real sense, that city of bygone days is today’s world and Church in crisis. It is the reason Fr. Flum’s spiritual fatherhood took on a blazing intensity when the pandemic arrived as a seemingly invisible poisonous gas.
Although his parish was tiny, he began to offer Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. Mathematically, making it work without temporary reposition was all but impossible. Plucking guardians (then mostly still in fear of the virus) from the small farming community to cover 105 hours of weekly Adoration seemed as easy as riding a bicycle to the moon. Their pastor told them, though, that he would cover all the hours until folks came to adore. So in essence, for a while there, he began to live in his church. Oftentimes, worshippers would wander in and see him fully prostrate, nose and kneecaps to the floor, worshipping in candlelight.
In time, though, every single hour became filled. They saw the witness of a true shepherd who loved them, a man who understood the most powerful moments of a lifetime happened in front of the Eucharist. They wonder now if all those hundreds of hours spent alone in candlelight in front of the monstrance is where he heard the voice that has called him to crucify his life in a forest.
“The hermit lives as a sign and witness to priests that God is due everything—wholly and completely—no Redskins games, no entertainment, etc.; we need to live entirely for souls and souls alone. I’m going to be the best that I can. I’m just a novice, though. One doesn’t just become a hermit.
“Like Scripture says: ‘He set his face like flint.’ The hermit knows his task; and his task is to go to the cross.”
The parishioners he left behind believe Fr. Flum is as important as any single person in the world—far more than Joe Biden or Pope Francis, and even more than Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. They know the very nature of his vocation has invited war with Satan. As St. Benedict (in a cave), St. Anthony (in a desert), and St. John Vianney (in his bed chamber) fought demons, Fr. Flum naturally anticipates personal visitations from demonic assailants—most especially because he’s embraced the hermetic life to pray for travailed priests. Satan wants bachelor priests; not the holy men for whom Fr. Flum has offered his life to God, so He will raise them up.
When my wife, Krista, and I invited our former pastor to dinner a few days prior to his leaving, he spoke of the spiritual warfare he would be entering.
“There is full confidence in God, but there is also some trepidation with that realm. Satan’s intellect is more powerful than mine, but God’s grace is more powerful,” he said. “If I remain in a state of grace—and I’m not headstrong and remember fighting off demons doesn’t depend on me—there is a confidence. There is also Mary, my guardian angel, and St. Michael, who I will take with me. Of course, there is a proper reverential fear of entities working to pull me away from God, but I also know what Teresa of Avila eventually said to Satan: ‘Oh, it’s just you.’”
He continued: “There is a certain peace that comes from acknowledging the methods and work of the demon. People are afraid of demons, but we must understand who he is, and what he is—and most importantly, that he has been defeated. He is a huckster, a magician. He tries to trick us into believing he is more dangerous than he is. He is a liar. All his power is derived from how God has created him. When we live in the grace of the Lord, though, the demon knows he is coming up against both me and the Lord.
“Dealing with the demon might be like going to your first fight and bringing along your older brother—so you’re scared, but not that scared. You feel, in a way, very protected.”
Throughout dinner, Krista and I were struck with the disorienting and astonishing thought that we would never see Fr. Flum again. Krista kept quiet most of the night, devastated at the seeming ghost sitting across from her. She had attended daily Mass at St. Michael’s the past 14 months—a 45-minute one-way drive—where her spiritual director led her to a new understanding of the Trinity and God’s intense love for her.
Sitting on the back porch under the darkening sky, I asked him what led to such a radical departure after having served as a diocesan priest for two decades.
“I know it’s an unusual calling from God, but it is real,” Fr. Flum said. “For many years, even in seminary, there was an ever-deepening desire for ongoing contemplative prayer, where ‘God alone’ is the only desire. The hermit pursues his vocation because God is beckoning him into the wilderness of a relationship solely with Him.
“The distinctive mark of a hermit is separation from everyone else and giving himself entirely to God. The Church needs its members to truly live their vocation. If the hand decides to be an ear, the body loses something. The Church is impoverished; so in a real way, the austere life of a hermit is a type of service to the Church. It’s unusual, but for a great while I felt called to live it.”
Fr. Flum continued: “Oftentimes, the hermetic life was seen, by those not familiar with it, as a vacation—where one would build a little hut and stir his soup and watch the birds and sunrise from his wooden porch. But no. The hermit’s life is ‘God alone.’ It is to live the crucified life of Christ; it is living His passion in a way the active priest cannot.
“If the priest is truly going to imitate Christ, he is going to live a penitential life. He will live a life of prayer and penance. The hermit is a reminder to the priest that this life is supposed to be a penance. It’s living the vocation in its fullness.” He added, “Because of his duties, the diocesan priest isn’t able to live this form of penitential life—the hermit can live it, though—even beyond what St. John Vianney did as far as penitential life. The hermit is to imitate Christ even more intensely. Life becomes God alone.”