The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

New diocesan hermits seek solitude, bound by vows

Two retired Catholics profess their perpetual vows before Bishop Taylor Sept. 10

Published: September 19, 2013         
Malea Hargett
David Menkhoff of Little Rock reads his vows before Bishop Anthony B. Taylor Sept. 10 as his spiritual director Father Norbert Rappold looks on. Judith Weaver waits to profess her vows, supported by her sponsors.

Hermits live their lives in solitude, but all eyes were on two of them Sept. 10 when they made perpetual vows before Bishop Anthony B. Taylor.

A Mass was held in Morris Hall  chapel at St. John Center in Little Rock for Judith Weaver of Paris and David Menkhoff of Little Rock. Thirty-five friends, parishioners and diocesan employees attended the Mass.

The relatively unknown vocation was the subject of discussion among attendees who were curious about Weaver and Menkoff’s way of life. Where do they live? How do they support themselves? What do they do all day?

Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, minister for religious, herself didn’t know a lot of about the canon laws supporting a hermit until last year.

The Church has always recognized hermits, also known as anchorites, who want to withdraw from the world for silence and prayer. Traditionally hermits were associated with religious orders, but in contemporary times hermits can also take perpetual vows before a diocesan bishop.

“Hermits are recognized by law as dedicated to God in consecrated life if, in the hands of the diocesan bishop, they publicly profess, by a vow or some other sacred bond, the three evangelical counsels and then lead their particular form of life under the guidance of the diocesan bishop,” according to canon law. Hermits who make their vows before the local bishop have him approve their “plan of life.”

Sister Joan’s research into eremitic life was gathered into the diocese’s first policy for hermits, which was approved by Bishop Taylor in July. The diocese has had two hermits — Alice Ruth Carr of Fort Smith and Agnes Janice Sehgal of Bryant — for many years, but they were largely left to their own direction until recently.

“It means a lot to them to be connected to the diocese in a formal way,” said Sister Joan, who has visited each hermit personally over the past 10 months.

In his homily, Bishop Taylor said it is important to understand that a hermit is not the same thing as a “recluse.”

“You can’t just be married ‘in general;’ in marriage you are always bound to a particular person. Well, in the religious life, that’s the difference between being a hermit and being a recluse.  Both separate themselves from the world to a degree, but only the hermit is bound by vows to the person of Jesus.”  (See Bishop Taylor’s complete homily on page 15.)

Weaver, a member of St. Anthony Church in Ratcliff, first lived as a hermit near Subiaco Abbey in the 1990s for about four years. She had previously discerned a vocation as a contemplative Benedictine nun and even had a successful career in advertising and marketing for many years. After moving to Savannah, Ga., to discern a vocation as a Carmelite and work as a hospital chaplain, Weaver returned to Arkansas eight years ago to renew her commitment to eremitical life.

“I’ve always been inclined to be contemplative,” she said. “I am comfortable in solitude and then what do you do with the solitude. It is really a way of communing with God.”

Weaver was happy to take final vows and be connected in a permanent way to the Diocese of Little Rock at last.

“It is really a mature vocation,” she said. “It hasn’t been a straight path for me, but I realized to really live the hermit life I think you need experience of religious life.”

Weaver, 72, rises at 3 a.m. three times a week for an extended prayer vigil, reading the Liturgy of the Hours, spiritual books, that day’s Gospel reading and Scripture.

“It is the quietest time and there is a sacrifice in it,” she said. “It is also when the whole world is still, or most of the world. You are aware of God, or at least I find that.”

She enjoys walking her Shih Tzu-poodle, Cuddles, at 5 a.m. while most of the town is still sleeping.

“She never barks. She is a better hermit than I am,” she said.

She has a car and telephone, but no computer or television.

“For me they compete and crowd out for attention with God,” she said of electronics. “I am freer without those things.”

She spends time during the week in “shared prayer” with a neighbor, Deacon Mark Shea, who has the Internet and shares the pope’s homily for the day and Catholic news. She cooks meals for several neighbors, which she says fit into her contemplative life.

“I can be Mary all or part of the day and do the Martha part of it by my cooking,” Weaver said, referring to the Gospel story of Mary of Bethany who listened to Jesus while her sister Martha prepared a meal for him.

Daily Mass is not a regular practice for her, but she does attend adoration on Wednesdays.

“I am united very much praying the prayers of the Mass in the morning… For me being quiet and at home is my way,” she said.

Menkhoff, 67, considers himself an “urban hermit,” living in a small apartment in midtown Little Rock and taking a city bus to Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church or the Cathedral of St. Andrew for Mass. At daily or weekend Masses he hands out Divine Mercy prayer cards, a devotion he has followed since he was a child. The rest of the day he spends in prayer, reading the Liturgy of the Hours and communicating with his spiritual director, Father Norbert Rappold of Mountain Home, through a spiritual journal. Using postal mail for his communication is necessary as he doesn’t own a telephone or have an e-mail address.

Menkhoff also doesn’t own a car or television.

Like Weaver, Menkhoff previously discerned a religious life as a Benedictine or Carmelite. A Vietnam veteran and former licensed practical nurse, he has been living the life of a hermit for 20 years. He took private vows before Father Rappold in 2007. 

“Norbert and I are like brothers,” he said.

While traveling Little Rock on a city bus, he said he can still maintain his eremitical life. “I live in solitude internally,” he said.

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