Man living in Philadelphia rowhouse, on $5,500 a year, recognized as ''canonical hermit''

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- He isn't part of a religious order, and his hermitage isn't on top of a mountain.

But recently Richard Withers became the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia's first ''canonical hermit.'' A convert from Judaism, Withers lives in a small rowhouse in a Philadelphia neighborhood plagued by abandoned houses and drug trade.

''My vocation is no longer my own,'' the 46-year-old Withers said. ''It's now being incorporated into the whole church.''

His acceptance was made possible by a 1983 change in the church's canon law, allowing bishops to accept hermits within their diocese. Withers is not alone in choosing a life of solitude and prayer, but Catholic officials don't know how many hermits exist today.

The formal status won't change Withers' life much. He has been living alone since 1984 under private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For the past 10 years, he has inhabited the small house in north Philadelphia, which he purchased for $1 and rehabilitated with his own handiwork.

He spends 4 1/2 hours each day in prayer and works one day a week to support himself at a company that makes scientific instruments. He makes $5,500 a year, doesn't have a television and depends upon conversation to get the news.

''It has a normal rhythm,'' he said. ''It's nothing extraordinary, like I'm not hanging from my toes anywhere or anything.''

Raised with seven brothers and sisters in a family that considered itself culturally Jewish, Withers wasn't instructed in prayer. But the signs that his life would take a spiritual course appeared early, he said.

As a 6-year-old, Withers had a recurring dream that he was living on a cliff and that people would come to visit him. During adolescence, he fantasized frequently about building a cabin in the woods and ''just living there,'' he said.

But Withers said his conversion, and the journey to his current vocation, didn't follow a straight path. ''I wasn't really looking,'' he said. ''It wasn't like I was in angst searching for answers. It's just the way the story unfolded.''

Withers had been planning to go into photography, and was living in a house in Camden, N.J., taking a year off from college when he began working as a bicycle repairman. He began attending church with others who were living in the house -- a commune of sorts.

He said he almost got married, but realized that he needed to follow another road. Eventually, he was introduced to a priest, and the next Easter he was baptized. About six months later he took his private vows.

For a while, he said, he searched for a ''nice quiet order'' to join.

''I never wanted to be a trailblazer or anything like that,'' said Withers, who is friendly and talkative.

He decided to become a solitary hermit and found a spiritual director, he said. He began appealing to the church for recognition as a lay hermit in the early 1990s, he said. The church twice rejected his appeal.

But the wait isn't surprising, when considering the amount of time it had taken canon law to change.

Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, a canon lawyer and chancellor of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wis., said the church decided canon law needed revising in the late 1950s and formed an advisory commission to investigate. The group decided to reinstate the hermitic life in the 1960s, but it took until 1983 to make the change official.

Now a bishop can give canonical approval to an individual who wants to take vows. The bishop then becomes a spiritual adviser to the hermit, she said.

The Catholic Church in Philadelphia said the delay in recognizing Withers was, in part, meant to test his resolve.

Weisenbeck suggested that such delays may also be due to a lack of understanding within the church.

''A lot of bishops didn't know anything about this way of life and were very reluctant to become a guide to people following a life they didn't understand,'' she said.

But Withers said he wasn't bothered by the wait. He believes the number of canonical hermits is growing and that there is a movement favoring a quieter, more spiritual life.

He is permitted to have visitors but is only allowed to visit others twice each year. He hopes to stop working outside the home soon; he makes some money selling pottery he makes between his prayers.

''In a sense, I'm losing him, but I'm proud of him,'' said his father, Robert Withers. ''We'll rarely be able to see Richard as a hermit, but he'll always be with us in our heart and in our prayers.''

As a hermit recognized by the church, Withers will work toward spiritual purification, and stand as an example of ''another kind of life,'' he said.

He said people often erroneously equate being a hermit with living in a cave.

''They'll say to me 'Do you have electricity? Do you have a phone?''' he said. ''To cut that short I tell them, 'I have e-mail.'''

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