Locked up forever in the wall of a church

By Patricia Kasten

Anchoresses live a hermit’s life, but not ‘away from it all’

Have you ever dreamed of getting away from it all? Taking a one-way ticket to a deserted place and staying there forever?

Well, in the history of the church, anchorites and anchoresses have done just that. Especially popular from the fourth through the 14th centuries, the anchoress’ lifestyle didn’t usually involve deserted islands — or even the desert, as the lives of some hermits did. Instead anchoresses and anchorites retreated into a cell, usually with no door — often for the rest of their lives.

The present Code of Canon Law, from 1983, still recognizes the anchoress/anchorite way of life “by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance” (n. 603).

One of the best known anchoresses was Countess Jutta von Sponheim, who died in 1136. She had herself enclosed in an anchorhold beside a Benedictine abbey in Sponheim, in what is now Germany. She eventually became abbess — while still walled up in her cell — and thus became the teacher of Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard succeeded Jutta as abbess and, while not an anchoress herself, she became one of the church’s great mystics. (Hildegard’s feast day is Sept. 17 and she was made a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 7, 2012.)

Early anchoresses and anchorites (men) lived much as any other hermit did, withdrawing from the world and living in caves. However, as the centuries progressed, they continued to withdraw from the world, but did so in the center of their world — having cells attached to the local village church.

The word “anchoress” — most were women — comes from a Greek word, anachoreo, meaning “to withdraw or retire.” The most famous anchoress may have been Julian of Norwich, who died in 1416.

By Julian’s day, the retirement of an anchoress into her cell had become a formal rite in the church. An anchorhold was attached to a church, it had no doors and the inhabitant was formally enclosed by the bishop. The rite actually involved receiving the sacraments of the dying and reading of the Office of the Dead over her as she was bricked up in her cell. Some anchoresses were enclosed with open graves in their cells, so that they might meditate upon their mortality. When they died, the windows to their cells were simply closed and sealed.

Anchorholds usually had three windows: one (sometimes called “a squint”) looked into the church, toward the altar; a second was used to receive her meals and through which any other necessities (like chamber pots) could be passed; and a smaller window allowed the anchoress to speak to visitors. Anchoresses, like Jutta and Julian, became spiritual guides for many people. Some anchorholds also had servants’ quarters, usually on a floor beneath.

While most anchorholds were destroyed over the years, examples can still be seen in England, such as at Ankers House Museum at St. Mary and St. Cuthbert Anglican Church in Durham. And St. Keyne’s Holy Well in Cornwall is reputed to have been founded by a 5th century anchoress. (Her feast day is Oct. 8.)

Much is known about the lives of anchoresses thanks to a 13th century manuscript called Ancrene Wisse, or the “Anchoresses’ Guide,” written between 1225 and 1240. Most experts agree that it is a revision of an earlier work: Ancrene Riwle, or “Anchorites’ Rule.” This book of religious instruction was written for three sisters of noble birth who lived in or near Wales and, presumably, became anchoresses.

According to the Ancrene Wisse, the local bishop was responsible for the care of an anchoress. He first had to decide whether or not a woman was fit for this life, whether there was enough financial support to sustain her (some bishops provided for the care of anchoresses, but others did not); he had to choose the site for the anchorhold; and he performed the rite of enclosure.

While the lifestyle was rigorous — involving a strict cycle of prayer throughout the day as well as work, often at handicrafts for financial support, as well as a Spartan diet — an anchoress was not lonely. In fact, as we look to centers of faith in our Year of Faith, an anchoress’ cell could became a center of faith for the town, with most people confiding in her.

This became so common that the Ancrene Wisse had to include some “don’ts” in its guidelines. Anchoresses could not keep valuables in their cells, run a school or send or receive letters. (Of course, the schooling and letter-writing prohibitions do not seem to have been the case for Jutta.) Further, anchorholds were never to become a site of gossip. However, the current editor of Ancrene Wisse, Robert Hasenfratz. found that at least some anchorholds served as banks, post offices, schoolhouses, shops and even as the local newspaper.

While most anchoresses lived centuries ago, there are modern anchoresses. Some live the lifestyle for only a short time, while others commit their lives to the anchorhold.

One is an Anglican — Sr. Rachel — living in Peterborough, England. Her website, www.anchorhold.co.uk/, describes a day that begins at 4:30 a.m. with prayer that continues through the day and ends with night prayer at 8 p.m.

Sr. Rachel also works for her living: “Although I spend time in silence and solitude, I also generate income by working in the areas of spiritual direction, leading retreats and quiet days and spirituality training.” Her life, and the life of all anchoresses and anchorites, is focused on God. All have tried to live the insight voiced by the anchoresses Julian of Norwich: “Prayer is a new, gracious, lasting will of the soul united and fast-bound to the will of God by the precious and mysterious working of the Holy Ghost.”

Sources: “Revelations of Divine Love”; catholic.org; Robbins Library, University of Rochester; “courseweb” at University of St. Thomas; Medieval Sourcebook at fordham.edu; newmanconnection.com; thisisdurham.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”