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Woman breaks new ground -- for a hermit

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It's a long way from the recital stage of Carnegie Hall to the mobile home that serves as hermitage to Sr. Alice Ruth Carr. Trained as an operatic soprano, she sang her way around New York long before she took the less traveled road. She also worked as administrative assistant at Boston College, and with the police department. At 50, she entered the Carmelite order, was professed and lived in community for 10 years before starting the hermit's life.

Carr points out that every hermit has a unique way of living out the call. She's been a hermit for five years now, one of two canonically recognized in the diocese of Little Rock, Ark. She lives in the Arkansas Ouchita mountains. A 13-inch TV set with snowy reception testifies that this hermit is at home in her own time and culture.

Her 16-year-old car is a necessity for driving into town for supplies or doctor appointments. Clerks in Wal-Mart know the gregarious hermit in serious hiking boots and brown habit. She is cordial, offering suggestions on which toilet paper is the better value for a puzzled shopper.

At the abbey, where she attends daily Mass, Carr's clear soprano voice blends harmoniously with the chant. She joins the monks for liturgy in their choir stalls, but disappears like a waft of incense soon after services.

Hours spent by herself are filled with activity: maintaining the blackberries in her enclosed yard, baking bread, working on a book, sewing -- all this sandwiched between periods of prayer and listening to classical or sacred music.

A small Social Security stipend is the basis of her income, and determines the repairs she is able to do on her "handyman special" mobile home. Right now, the refrigerator is not working and she makes do with a styrofoam chest filled with melting ice.

While she had the approval of her superiors and Little Rock Bishop Andrew J. McDonald to embark on the hermit life, she was still breaking new ground. In the women's branch of the Discalced Carmelites, there is no provision for a professed nun to become a hermit. While men usually do not have to leave their orders to become hermits, women usually do.

So, at 65, Carr was dispensed from her solemn vows as a Carmelite when she took vows as a canonical hermit in the diocese.

Part of her bumpy transition included living in public housing for a time and taking computer training under the Displaced Homemakers Program. Hermits usually adopt a plan of life, and Carr chose to live by the 12th century rule of St. Albert of Jerusalem.

Carr values her solitude, but is in no way reclusive or antisocial. She loves people and keeps informed on their needs. "As a hermit, your whole life is a prayer," she says. "You practice the presence of God. He talks to you and is with you all the time. You take everybody you meet, people you'll never know but whom you know your life touches, and you lift them up to the Lord in prayer." An example of this outreach is a picture painted by a prisoner on death row that graces Carr's hermitage.

She says she isn't lonely, that she has found solitude quite freeing. She is free for contemplative prayer, free to practice a form of frugality and simplicity not always available in a more structured form of community life. She is free to explore the ways in which God is leading her into greater communion with his people.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996