Successful as whom, and what?


I have been somewhat fascinated for quite some time by the difference between successful and less successful people. My attention always sharpens when someone enters my attention field that I think would be a good case study – in flesh and blood, in documentaries, even on a TV show or in movies. I notice how people behave, how they enter a room, how they greet people, how they listen to you, clothing, general appearance, vocabulary, expectation or lack thereof that success is possible for them, and so on.

Twenty years ago my role model, the person I had most wanted to be like, the person I had idealized, was the ascetic. I dreamed to be able to withdraw from society and to live in an old abandoned fort at least three days’ walk from the nearest town – and with no roads so people of the town could not have reached me by car.

I thought by myself, this interest I have developed in the successful person is not accidental: I want to be successful. I want to behave successful; I want to talk successful, think successful, dress successful, and of course, over time expect to be successful when I embark on a project or venture.

What then of the ascetic? Have I finally undergone a transformation? Has the ascetic become tired of isolation and has he started to wonder how it would feel to be one of “them”?

Then I realized, the ascetic is successful.

The ascetic, when he speaks, does not speak apologetically. The ascetic does not wear an expensive suit, or comfortable trousers and a cotton shirt and an expensive pair of Italian sandals, but he is comfortable in the material he does drape over himself.

The ascetic is not poor, though he has no money.

The ascetic is successful, although students and imitators of conventionally successful people will not see it.

The ascetic is successful because he does what he wants. He goes his own way. He does not make apologies. He does not ask for acceptance. And he expects, if he continues to be who he is, to live in peace, to feel relatively good about who and what he is, and to finally die in peace.

Most people want to be successful – but successful as what, and as whom?


Thursday, 12 February 2015

I read an article recently on the hermit, Richard Withers:

After his baptism, [Richard] Withers lived in a loosely-affiliated religious community. While there, Withers almost got married but decided that he wanted to live a religious life instead. In 1984, he took private vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” and became a hermit. Before taking his vows, Withers had looked into several religious orders, but he could not find one that he felt compatible with. Passionate about the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, he and Sister Margaret McKenna debated about “Where is the desert today?” Deciding it was in the abandoned inner cities, in 1989 they moved into an abandoned row house that they began restoring, continuing their work even when their tools were regularly stolen by drug addicts. There, they founded New Jerusalem Laura, a treatment center for drug addicts.

Two years later, in 1991, Withers bought a derelict rowhouse from the city of Philadelphia for $1 and parted ways with McKenna. This would become his hermitage. He fixed the building, which lacked doors, windows, or a working roof and then went on to build furniture for it by himself. After the 1983 revision of Canon 603, the option of being a consecrated hermit while independent of the system of religious orders had been permitted. In 1995, Withers attempted to be consecrated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but was rejected. In 2001, Withers was finally approved and consecrated as a hermit by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and took his public vows. Withers was the first hermit to be consecrated by the Archdiocese.

Life as a hermit

As a hermit, Withers lives in solitude. He does not own a car or television; he gets his news from the people around him and gets around on a bicycle that he found, broken, on the side of the road. Though he has an open-door policy for people that come to visit him, he himself visits family only twice a year. He does have a computer, which he uses to keep in touch with other hermits via email. To earn his food and clothing allowance, which amounts to less than $5,500 per year, Withers makes pottery to sell and works one day a week for a scientific-instrument company. At the end of each year, he donates any funds that remain to the poor.

Withers wakes up at 5 AM and then fills his day with prayer and chores, following his rule of life. He prays for 4½ hours each day. Withers claims that “it’s in the solitude that I hear God best”.