“There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain.”
— William Edward Hartpole Lecky, from History of European Mortals
Most people think the anchoress has only three windows in her cell, tiny slits or spaces through which the sounds of worship, the outside air, food, or the occasional human voice might enter her cramped abode.
But there is one more. She probably stares at it often, its specified dimensions growing fuzzy the way objects do when you look at them too long. The warm repetition of her cat’s purrs as it lounges on her lap draws her more deeply into contemplation.
She has already confessed her sins, been given last rites and declared dead to the world. Still, this fourth window, a hole that leads nowhere, helps her remember her death; it is her very own grave dug into the earth and stone of her anchor-hold.
The vast majority of anchorites in the Late Middle Ages were women who voluntarily locked themselves away for the rest of their lives and risked excommunication if they left. From a feminist perspective, one might understand the impetus to flee from the restraints put on women in the Middle Ages. Their few sources of value came in their ability to bear children or in pursuing religious vocation. Being alone, and even, in a sense, choosing the hour of one’s death was perhaps one of the few powers available to a woman.
But they were also women of their time, bound and influenced by their culture, theologies, and church hierarchies. They were women of deep faith and conviction and their decision wasn’t made frivolously.
The most famous anchoress, Julian of Norwich, had to first gain permission to become an anchorite and submit herself to a thorough evaluation to ensure she was of sound mind and theology. Julian’s examiner was Bishop Despenser, who had himself murdered peasants during a rebellion.
More than a dozen anchorite guidance texts still exist, mostly from the Middle Ages, their purpose being to encourage and provide guidelines to the anchorite who had taken on this difficult and life-long vocation.
Some scholars have wondered if Julian read any of the guidance texts for anchorites. One guide author compares God’s allowing a person to be tempted with a mother playing hide-and-seek with her child. God as mother is a theme throughout these texts, and Julian is famous for writing about Jesus as mother.
But Julian differs from many of the guided manuscripts as well. She doesn’t echo the wrath-filled and disturbing vision of God as an abusive father being protected by his mother/Jesus. As one guidance text puts it:
“God, the Father almighty, how bitterly he beat his precious Son…because he put himself between us and his Father, who was threatening to strike us, as a compassionate mother puts herself between her child and the angry, stern father, when he is about to beat it.”
The picture of God as a wrathful father is “antithetical to Julian’s insistence…that God does not blame the sinner.” Though she recognizes the sinfulness of humans, Julian rejects the vision of wrathful Deity and whether intentionally or not, she moderates the harshness of some of these anchorite guidance texts.
Julian’s tempering of the wrathful theology of God resonates for people, even today, who have been wounded by such harsh theologies. We might wonder if Julian was onto something, if her radical way of living as an anchoress allowed her the space to a have a vision of God that pushed at the boundaries of our orthodoxies. She shows herself to be both a woman of her time as well as occupying, in her mystical encounters with God, a place outside the persuasions of the anchorite guides of her day, maybe outside of time itself.
Some didn’t think so highly of anchorites like Julian. In his tome on the history of the Christian church, William Lecky had harsh words for the choice to seclude oneself. Most especially, he criticized the bent toward an asceticism that many anchorites embraced, a neglect and abuse of the body that, it was hoped, would lead to the purifying of the soul. Lecky called it “useless and atrocious self-torture.”
So, which was it? Self-torture or communion with God? And what makes someone choose such a radical and potentially tortuous path? Those of us who study such mystics and saints wonder at the complexities of these spiritual wanderers.
Katie Ford’s poem “Anchoress” offers a picture of a secluded woman who goes roaming through the nearby forest in her dreams, escaping her “isolate” for moments and coming upon a burning light in which she seems to hear God’s voice. A voice that might be adding “correction” to former commands and words.
The anchoress of the poem is cautious and fearful. Was it really God’s voice she heard in that fire? It is a caution that we should heed. Perhaps staring into one’s own grave, year after year, and wandering out into the forest in her dreams, would make one see and hear things that weren’t there.
But then there’s Julian, who didn’t shy away from the horrors of the world and humbly spoke of hearing God’s voice and letting God’s words comfort and sustain her. She didn’t shy away from speaking the truth, but humility still undergirded her words.
Maybe Julian herself, who spent countless hours staring into the darkness of her mortality, would offer the same caution that the anchoress of the poem does:
“I whisper to my brothers and sisters who say God has instructed them to take up hatchet in battle and hand to infant: be not assured.”
Such words could’ve been said to Julian’s Bishop Despenser, who examined her for a sound theology and then sent many rebels to their deaths. Maybe more men of power and social standing ought to stare at their own graves for a few decades before they’re allowed to speak a command. And maybe they should do so with a cat on their laps. Besides being aware of their deaths, having a cat as one’s only companion would make us all a lot less sure of ourselves. Humility, more than any strict orthodoxy, could stay the hands of tyrants, kings, bishops, and presidents.
image: Anchoress, courtesy Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing has also appeared in such places as Christianity Today, Art House America, Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She lives in Ohio with her husband and four kids.