Yesterday, May 8th, was (in the Church of England at any rate) the feast of Dame Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century anchoress who wrote the wonderful Revelations of Divine Love.
You can read about anchoresses and anchorites here. An anchoress would in a little house called an anchorhold, built against the exterior wall of a church. As I understand it, the anchorhold had a window into the church, through which the anchoress might receive the blessed Sacrament, and a window into the market-place through which she might give her godly counsel to those who sought her wisdom. There is an anchorhold still at All Saints Church, Kings Lynn - see here.
The Ancrene Riwle (sometimes called the Ancrene Wisse; text here, intro here) is the rule of life written for the medieval anchoresses, and gives vivid insight into their lives. Each lived as a recluse, not going forth from the anchorhold, but having two domestic servants to care for her needs and go out into the world for that purpose – much like the extern sisters in a contemplative community.
The anchoress’s life was modelled on that of Mary of Bethany, who sat at the feet of Jesus, in contrast to her busy sister Martha. In the Ancrene Riwle, Martha is seen as the type of the housewife, occupied with the care and wellbeing, the many tasks, of her household; Mary is the type of the anchoress, freed from all domestic responsibility to focus on Jesus.
I have always been inspired by the concept of living retiredly and quietly, neither part of the busy world nor part of the busy church, in such simplicity as to leave space for the work of the soul in the presence of Jesus. I love the idea of the anchorhold being on the very edge of the church, one wind-eye opening into the church and one into the marketplace. It resonates within my soul.
Pictures of Julian of Norwich often show her with her cat. Anchoresses were discouraged from keeping domestic animals (cows, goats) as, in the free-ranging pre-enclosure Middle Ages, the care and containment of animals required application and vigilance which would have been a distraction from the prayer focus of the anchoress. But everyone had mice and rats, so she was allowed a cat. And Dame Julian loved her cat dearly (see this post at The Cat’s Whiskers blog).
What I hadn’t realised before I read that blog post, was why they were called anchoresses, and their dwellings anchor-holds. That it was because they were called to anchor the Light to the Earth, each in the place where she lived.
There is so much in this that I find wildly exciting. Living as Mary, at the feet of Jesus; living in seclusion, ‘dead to the world’; living with one window opening onto the sanctuary, one onto the marketplace, in a dwelling built onto the very edge of the church exterior – so, actually, outside the church in the world, not in it; occupied with anchoring the Light for this part of the Earth, in this time.
I cannot be a physical, literal anchoress, because I am a married woman with family obligations; but I recognise in the anchoress’s life something very akin to the life to which I am called and drawn.
- To anchor the Light in my day and situation
- To live on the boundary between the church and the world, built onto the church but in the world
- To live in quietness, simplicity and seclusion
- To be not idle, working with my hands about the house and garden and in writing, but living in such simplicity, retiredness and non-attachment as to be not busy or involved.
- To sit close to the feet of Jesus, listen to Him and keep my eyes fixed upon Him.