Archdiocese elevates man to `canonical hermit'

Philadelphian has lived alone since 1984 under private vows

October 28, 2001|By Jim Remsen | Jim Remsen,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - In a curious moment for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua recently elevated a free-lance urban hermit to be its first "canonical hermit."

The chosen one is a gentle soul named Richard Withers, 46. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Withers has lived alone since 1984, the last 10 years in North Philadelphia, under his own private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Withers had petitioned the church for the official status, citing 1983 canon-law changes that restored the ancient category of lay hermit. Such a person functions under a bishop's care rather than having to join a monastic order.

After a testing period, the local hierarchy agreed to consecrate Withers. He professed his vows publicly during the 11 a.m. Mass Oct. 14 at his home parish, St. Malachy's.

`An authentic call'

"His is an authentic call," said the Rev. Daniel E. Mackle, director of the archdiocese's office for worship. "Richard has lived it out and refined it."

Withers joins a small but growing company of male and female canonical hermits sprinkled among the country's 194 Catholic dioceses.

The elevation, Father Mackle said, means that Withers becomes part of the "spiritual assets" of the archdiocese. He will be expected to pray particularly for the local church, and is authorized to accept people's "prayer intentions" and include them in his devotions.

The church's long hermit tradition may be hard for others, and even Catholics, to grasp. Paradoxically, it is not a life of isolation.

Hermits do live alone under certain austerities - each has a regimen called his "rule of life" - and they spend hours in daily prayer and contemplation. But openness and hospitality are central to the life as well.

Withers is no reclusive grump in sackcloth. He keeps an open door at the once-abandoned house that has been his hermitage since 1991. Though he lives on a shoestring, he freely shares his simple meals with neighbors and visitors and invites them to join him for prayer.

"Any religious vocation is about love," he said in an interview. "If one just likes to be alone, that's not a sign of a clear vocation."

The soft-spoken, lanky Withers is as unassuming as the drab facade of his little rowhouse. But one enters into a rich if eccentric interior, filled with objects the craftsman and tinkerer, a former bicycle mechanic, has built or restored from all manner of found and donated goods.

Withers even rehabbed someone's discarded computer and keeps an e-mail address: It's his link to a network of hermits and other friends - and now will be an in-box for prayer intentions.


Withers recently sat in his snug basement chapel room and reflected on his life.

Clad in a green apron over his uniform of blue jeans and work shirt, he could have been a shop teacher answering a student's questions with patience and soft laughter.

It is the custom-made, incense-infused space where he spends more than four hours a day in traditional, Benedictine prayer and contemplation. He built the altar wall, the altar table, the vigil lamp, his prayer stool, even the ritual container for the consecrated Eucharistic wafer - the blessed sacrament - that the church recently allowed him to have for private adoration.

Every object in the room has a story, as does every turn in his life.

Withers sat in the twilight shadows and recalled his memories of growing up in California and Cherry Hill, N.J., one of seven children of a Jewish mother and a lapsed-Catholic father, and of communing alone with God as a little boy. His religiosity went dormant during his teen years, he said, and was fired up again as a young man through his chance connection with a few Catholic activists in Camden, N.J., in 1974.

Unlike many religious seekers who spend years of wandering and sampling, Withers was quickly baptized and took to his newfound faith like an arrow to the target.

"The Holy Spirit just drew me in," he said.

Within six months - under divine prompting, he is sure - Withers made private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He's never broken them, he said.

Withers sampled religious orders but found a private vocation most compatible.

Withers spent seven hermit years in Camden, then bought the house on North Alder Street in Philadelphia for $1 and settled into his routine of domesticity and marathon prayer.

Traveling by bicycle

Withers makes ends meet by selling his "Monk's Ware" pottery and by working one day a week as a machinist-handyman at a lighting shop in Oak Lane. He pedals to the job, and to his weekly spiritual-direction session, on a trusty rebuilt bicycle.

His informal rule of life was tightened during his recent, official training period. For instance, now he can visit his family only twice a year, and other people not at all, "but anyone is welcome to come here."

He is to get around only by bicycle. He is to spend only one day a week outside the hermitage making money.

He is allowed only a certain sum in the bank, but he wouldn't say how much. Anything above that must go to charity.

Withers submits willingly.

"The vocation is no longer just my own personal vocation," he said. "It belongs to the whole diocese."

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