O Me of Little Faith

Here’s another dose of advance content from Pocket Guide to Sainthood (Jossey-Bass, 2009). There were lots of really interesting ways to be super spiritual back in the medieval days, from sitting on a pole your whole life (St. Simeon Stylites the Elder) to a lifetime of stumbling around starkers in the wilderness (St. Mary of Egypt), but none may have been more radical than becoming an anchorite. Here’s the entry on “Anchorites” from the glossary chapter.

A special kind of hermit who dedicated himself or herself (in which case she was called an anchoress) to a life of solitude, prayer, and asceticism. But instead of living in caves or the desert, anchorites preferred cozier confines: they walled themselves into a wee little room attached to a local church. Once the cell was ready, the anchorite would enter it in a somber ceremony — somber does seem like an accurate way to describe it — and the local bishop would then permanently brick up the door, sealing the man or woman inside. Afterwards, the anchorite’s only exposure to the outside world would be through a small window for the passage of food and water.

The renowned 14th-century devotional writer, Julian of Norwich, was an anchoress. She was also quite pasty.

Please use it in a sentence or two: Known for their great spirituality and wisdom, anchorites often dispensed advice through their tiny windows. Because if there’s anyone who ought to be telling you how to get along in the world, it’s someone who has willingly reduced their world to a closet.

Not to be confused with: Hermits, otherwise known as free-range anchorites.

Fun related fact: The Ancren Riwle, a 13th century manual for anchoresses, lists eight reasons to retire from the world. These include everything from security issues (“If a raging lion were running along the street, would not a wise person shut herself in?”) to protecting one’s virginity (“…this precious balsam in this brittle vessel is virginity…more brittle than any glass; which, if ye were in the world’s crowd, ye might…lose entirely”). It’s quite convincing.

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