A City Dweller Chooses the Life of Religious Hermit
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
Published: October 30, 2001
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 26— Richard Withers does not fit the popular image of a hermit. His beard is neatly trimmed, and he is friendly, not taciturn. He lives here in a tiny row house, which he rehabilitated, and while the struggling neighborhood might appear daunting, it is not the desert.
And, of course, this is 2001, not the fourth century, when solitary religious life flourished within an emerging church.
The life Brother Withers has chosen -- as a canonically recognized hermit within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- is possible only because the Vatican revised the church's canon law in 1983, adding a provision allowing bishops to accept hermits within their dioceses. Since then, others have chosen this path, bringing back an ancient tradition, although Catholic officials do not seem to know how many live as hermits today.
''There's this commitment,'' Brother Withers said in an interview, ''an almost unremitting desire to be alone with God.''
Put simply, he lives the life of a monk, but without the support of a monastery.
He rises at 5 a.m. for an hour of prayer and follows a monastic discipline -- praying according to an ancient schedule that follows the rhythms of the day, the offices of lauds, vespers, compline -- along with set periods for meals, work, spiritual reading and writing.
Until this month, when he made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the Philadelphia archdiocese had never recognized a hermit. Officials were skeptical when Brother Withers, 46, proposed the idea. Twice, they turned him down. They are supportive now.
''He's as authentic as they come,'' said Monsignor Alexander J. Palmieri, the archdiocese's chancellor, or administrator. Such a life, Monsignor Palmieri said, is ''being alone with God, not just for your benefit but for the benefit of the church and the world.''
Brother Withers said he sought recognition as a hermit out of a desire for ''a greater sense of obedience'' to the church. The status carries no financial or health benefits, he said. He felt that God was urging him, despite initial rejections by the archdiocese. ''The message I was getting in prayer was, keep trying,'' he said.
The church's Canon 603 recognizes the life of the hermit, ''in which Christ's faithful withdraw from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through the silence of solitude and through constant prayer and penance.''
The Rev. Daniel Ward, executive director of a legal resource center serving men and women who have taken religious vows, said the law was written without specifics as the church's way of saying, ''this is possible, now let it develop.''
''It's reviving the practice of the early church, where people didn't belong to a group or what we call a religious order or congregation,'' Father Ward said.
For centuries, the church has recognized hermits attached to monastic communities, men or women living separately near a monastery. One order built around this purpose is the Camadolese, founded in 1012, which has a monastery near Big Sur, Calif.
But how many dioceses now recognize solitary hermits is an open question.
''There are lots of hermits,'' Brother Withers said.
He is in touch by e-mail with at least three others. But there are more.
One man was accepted as a hermit in August in a Pacific Northwest diocese. He lives in an hermitage within a ponderosa pine forest, his days guided by a cycle of prayer centered on the Psalms and Bible readings. In an e-mail interview, he said a hermit's intention was to seek union with God in this life, not the next. He asked that he neither be named nor quoted directly, to preserve his isolation.
Brother Withers was born in Los Angeles, one of seven children, and raised, he said, ''culturally Jewish.'' His family moved to Camden, N.J., when he was 8. Eleven years later, through a series of influential acquaintances, including his supervisor in the bicycle repair department of the discount store where he worked, he was drawn toward Catholicism, was baptized and lived for years with others who shared a commitment to the church.
Early on, in prayer, he took his own vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and felt he saw signs from God that he was on the right path. For example, within a week of taking his vow of poverty, he came home one day to find that a burglar had stolen his tools, an event he regarded as helping him break a bond with material things. For years, he considered joining a religious order but did not find one that seemed right for him. In 1984, he ended up living alone -- a move he feared beforehand, but found spiritually enriching from the first day.
In 1994, he became aware of the canon law provision allowing hermits. He applied to the archdiocese for its recognition in 1995, but was turned down. As he was about to apply once more, Monsignor Palmieri asked that he wait another year. The archdiocese asked him and his spiritual director, a local priest, to send in regular reports on his life.
On Oct. 14, Brother Withers made a public profession of his vows in his parish church, placing his hand in the hands of Cardinal Bevilacqua. The event made the newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Brother Withers said he had found the attention challenging. Being in ''a public light is no consolation,'' he said.
Besides, he said, his life has much that is ordinary.''I've got to do the wash, sweep the floor, earn a living,'' he said. To make ends meet, he works one day a week at a company that makes scientific instruments.
But his purpose is distinctive. ''It's the amount of time spent in prayer, which is why I live alone,'' he said. ''It's in the solitude that I hear God best.''
Photo: Richard Withers is recognized as a hermit by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. (Tim Shaffer for The New York Times)