Sister Laurel O'Neal frequently trades her habit for blue jeans. She rims her blog entries with brilliantly colored artwork. She teaches adult education classes and plays first violin with the Oakland Civic Orchestra.

But for much of her life, she is alone with God.

She is a hermit.

A Benedictine nun who sought greater solitude than convent life allowed, O'Neal earlier this month placed her hands across the palms of Bishop Allen Vigneron of the Oakland Diocese in a ceremony that formalized her status as one of fewer than 100 people in the country who share her vocation.

Fellow parishioners at Lafayette's St. Perpetua Catholic Community puzzle over what a hermit is and does: "Everybody looks at you and says, 'Huh?'"'"

A Baptist neighbor asked what she should do when the two met.

"She said, 'Should I genuflect?' I said, 'Hello' works."

O'Neal lives a life of study and contemplative prayer in her "Stillsong Hermitage," a Lafayette apartment filled with and surrounded by lush greenery.

She rises at 5 a.m., drinks a cup of cider or coffee and begins a series of prayers to sanctify the day. She attends daily Mass at St. Perpetua, studies, recites the Morning Praise. She writes. She performs chores in silence. More prayer fills the afternoon and evening -- the Vespers, then finally the Complin. Some evenings she may play the violin or meet with clients seeking spiritual direction.

"If I'm successful, it means I've lived a day with integrity," she said.

O'Neal quotes one of her favorite Catholic thinkers, Thomas Merton, the late writer, poet, peace activist and Trappist monk, who said a hermitage should allow its resident to "fulfill (her) special needs for growth ... and confront the triple specters of boredom, futility and unfulfillment, which so terrify the modern American."

They don't appear to terrify Laurel O'Neal.

The name Stillsong Hermitage "reflects the essential joy and wholeness that comes from a Christ-centered life of silence and solitude," she writes in her blog. "At the heart of the Church, in the stillness and joy of God's dynamic peace, resonates the song which IS the hermit."

Quiet feels natural in these rooms. A chapel in her room holds a tabernacle, and within it the instruments of the Eucharist, which she performs here and for other residents in the complex.

"Bishops allow hermits to do that," she said.

Shelves full of books bank the living room. A print of Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" hangs beneath a crucifix. "Bach Works for the Violin" waits on a music stand. A shelf holds DVDs -- "The Hobbit" series, "The Green Mile" -- a television and other gadgets. And she loves "Harry Potter."

She embraces solitude, not isolation, she says: A hermit's life is not for those trying to hide from society.

"Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that (hermits) live in silence," said the Rev. Mark Weisner, spokesman for the Oakland Diocese. "We have the image of hermits being unhappy and unable to fit into society. Sister O'Neal is a very normal person. Can you imagine having constant contact with the Lord and not being joyful?"

Canon law describes a hermit's life as one of solitude and penance, "but there is nothing in church law about how much silence to keep," said Sister Marlene Wiesenbeck, who wrote a guidebook for aspiring hermits and the vicars and bishops who assess their applications.

Too much silence not only "interferes with the need for normal social interaction any person has," she said. It leads to "a spirituality that is so inward that the world no longer matters."

For O'Neal, vocation completes the whole of religious life.

Today, much of religious life focuses on activity -- social justice, feeding the poor. "And that's good," she said, "but the other part, contemplative life, has been ignored."

O'Neal began attending services as a teen and fell deeply in love with the faith.

She found the liturgy "mysterious, in the best meaning of that word," she said.

"I was pretty much amazed, maybe even awed, by the richness of the experience," she said. "As I have explained it to others, I was an adolescent searching in the inchoate, sometimes (in) desperate ways adolescents do, but without even knowing for what myself. I was tremendously moved by the liturgy and found that it satisfied me emotionally, aesthetically and intellectually."

She was not raised a Catholic, and her ebullience for all the faith offered shocked her family.

"My mother was particularly unhappy about the whole thing. She said, 'You can't be baptized and live in this house.'"

Her pastor offered her an apartment over his garage, and she moved in without a second thought.

"I knew what I wanted," she said.

A seizure disorder interfered with her early call to become a Franciscan nun and later, her doctoral studies at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. She holds a master's degree in theology from St. Mary's College in Moraga.

She was a neuroscience research assistant at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and a hospital chaplain.

But monastic life pulled hard, and she joined the Sisters for Christian Community.

In 1983, the church passed a canon law that revived the life of the hermit (sometimes called an anchorite). She asked immediately to be "professed" in a life plan that spoke to her motivation, described how she perceives God's call for solitude, laid a groundwork in theology and discussed how she intended to live her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

After accepting an early candidate in 1985, the diocese backed away from professing hermits. With a new bishop came a renewed interest, and 23 years after she tendered her bid, the diocese gave her its blessing.

She donned a gold betrothal ring in a special ceremony Sept. 2 and was given a white prayer cowl. She wears it to her daily Mass.

"One day, this older guy walks in, and he looks over at me and he goes, 'Awesome.' I was afraid there would be a lot of snickering."

It surprises her not one bit that more people are expressing an interest in eremetic life.

"I walk along today," she mused. "People have things sticking out of their ears all the time. People are always talking on the cell phone. People are always being talked to. People have to be hungry. How many people even stop to listen to their hearts?"

If the number of hermits is an indication, more do in France than in the United States. France has around 500 hermits.

New Zealand has one, too. "She's a friend of mine, so I know that," O'Neal said.

The hermit's life can be traced back to Exodus and the Israelites' 40-year sojourn through the desert.

St. Paul of Thebes of the third century is the first known hermit, Weisner said. To escape persecution by the Roman emperor, Paul found refuge in a cave.

In later centuries, hermits would cloister themselves on church grounds, Weisner said.

"In Europe, you see these little rooms connected to the church with slots so the person could see into the church, but the door would be bricked up. There would be a window so people could come by and feed them.

Merton pressed the church to open the doors of the diocese to hermits.

It has done so, but it could go further. O'Neal would like to see the church embrace those with chronic illnesses and steer them to eremetic life as a source of spiritual richness.

"Our church does very well ministering to the chronically ill, but not at having a ministry of the chronically ill," she said. "This is one way for that to happen."

Hermits across the country have a loose online partnership. They discuss the work that is part of a hermit's life. Most have some sort of cottage industry. Some run spiritual retreats.

"I talked to someone who is going to be a beekeeper," O'Neal said.

Those who aspire to a formal relationship with a diocese can wait a long time for it to come to pass. Her friend in New Zealand waited 17 years.

For at least three years, the church tests a candidate for mental and physical fitness. A canonical team studies the applicant's life plan.

"You're being watched to see if you are authentic, if God is watching you," said Sister Mary Dawiczyk, a hermit in Genoa, Wis., who said, "You are either being called by God or you are crazy."

That statement drew a chuckle from O'Neal.

"They want to make sure you're not a nut case," she said. "We've all run into them. You can't use hermitting to run away from things."

"I think of a life of silence and solitude as a natural way of life," she said, relaxing into an easy chair in Stillsong Hermitage, salt-and-pepper bangs escaping from under her nun's habit.

"My ancestors, coming across the plains, worked in silence, did humble, hard work."

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or rrosenlum@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Biography

Name: Sister Laurel O'Neal

Occupation: Hermit

Age: 58

Residence: Lafayette

Accomplishments: Benedictine nun has been accepted as a hermit by the Oakland Diocese.

Quotable: "We don't live in caves, we bathe regularly, and most of us (I can only speak for myself and the other hermits I know) LOVE people and are integrally connected to the rest of the church and world in some real way."

Stillsong Hermitage

Sister Laurel O'Neal's blog is online at http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com.