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Hermit with e-mail given church's blessing, standing

October 21, 2001

PHILADELPHIA — He isn't part of a religious order, and his hermitage isn't on top of a mountain.

Instead, Richard Withers is a convert from Judaism who lives in a small row house in an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood.

Last Sunday, he became the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia's first "canonical hermit." Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua officially recognized Withers, 46, as a hermit during a church service in North Philadelphia.

He had petitioned the Catholic Church for the official status since 1984, citing 1983 canon-law changes that restored the ancient category of lay hermit.

"The most recent law of the church allows this privilege without being formally connected with any of the traditional monastic orders," said the Rev. John McNamee, pastor of St. Malachy Church, where the service was held.

The formal status won't change Withers' life much, however.

Withers has lived alone since 1984 under private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For the past 10 years, he has lived in North Philadelphia in an abandoned house 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. He doesn't have a television, and depends upon conversation to get the news.

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 religious path started early.

"There were signs along the way that I just did not pick up on until later," he said

As a 6-year-old, Withers said, he 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.

Then, he lost his way, he said.

"I became more materialistic. At one point, I was arrested for grand larceny," he said.

Withers almost married, but realized he needed to follow another path. For a while, he said, he searched for a "nice, quiet order" to join.

He decided to become a solitary hermit, found a spiritual director and became bound by private vows.

In between his prayers, he makes pottery and does spiritual reading and writing. One day a week he works as a machinist, making enough money to survive -- $5,500 per year.

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

He has a telephone and a small transistor radio for emergencies, which he listened to for the first time in three years on Sept. 11.

"I cannot separate myself from what's happening in the world. In one sense, I need to know what's happening in the heart of the world," he said.

The vocation of solitary hermit predates the establishment of religious congregations. It had fallen into disuse, however, McNamee said. He wasn't able to say exactly how many hermits had been consecrated.

Withers said the number was growing.

"It's a movement," Withers said. "I thought I was the only hermit 15 years ago; I found out they're everywhere."

Friends and family swarmed around Withers to congratulate him after the ceremony at the racially and ethnically diverse church in North Philadelphia. Withers' father was among them.

"In a sense I'm losing him, but I'm proud of him," Robert Withers said. "We'll rarely be able to see Richard as a hermit, but he'll always be with us in our hearts 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 is permitted to take visitors at his home, but is only allowed to visit others twice each year. He hopes to stop working outside the home soon, and makes some money selling his pottery.

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.' "

By Tina Moore, The Associated Press. Copyright — 1997-2001 PG Publishing


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