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How I became a medieval-style anchorite

The author, a hermit, explains how she was transformed in her mid-50s from a professional woman into a ‘prisoner of the Lord’

By on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

An anchorite's cell at Fore Abbey, County Westmeath, Ireland

An anchorite's cell at Fore Abbey, County Westmeath, Ireland

Before 2003 I thought that hermits were extinct – as dead as a Dodo. I had heard of some of the medieval hermit saints, but in the 21st century, in Britain, surely not.

Yet now I am an anchorite, as was Julian of Norwich, and for one precious year the bishop locked me in. I had a bed area, a shower room, an enclosed garden of 10 square feet, and my oratory with the wicket window opening into our chapel. I had stable doors, the top half being under my control, the lower half locked. I was a “prisoner of the Lord”: no radio, phone, or internet. It was a wonderful year, but due to us moving it could not be prolonged after the initial trial year.

How did I, a professional woman in my 50s become a medieval-style anchorite? Well, it was a shock. I worked while looking after my mother, until her death in 2002. The next year, I was helping in Lourdes when I felt God calling me. So on my return I spoke to my parish priest and was very surprised when he referred me to a hermit-priest for vocations advice. We decided that I would become a consecrated virgin living in the world, but God had other ideas. Christ’s challenge to the rich young man kept coming back to haunt me: “Go, sell what you own… then come, follow me.”

So I sold my house and bought a caravan, and a year later became a novice hermit.

I thought that I had given up the chance to become a consecrated virgin – a spouse of Christ, but during my final profession as
a hermit the bishop also performed the beautiful 11th-century rite of the consecration of a virgin. The taking of public vows to the bishop as a hermit, and the rite of consecration as a virgin were both brought back into the Catholic Church at the time of Vatican II and are the oldest form of religious life in the Church, pre-dating the start of monastic life.

Throughout the medieval era there were hundreds of hermits. St Augustine of Canterbury was met by a Celtic hermit who acted as the spokesman for the Christian Britons. By the seventh century there were many “English” (Anglo-Saxon) hermits including such well-known saints as St Herbert of Derwentwater, St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne, and St Guthlac of Crowland. By the late medieval period there were at least 750 hermitages in England alone, probably many more, as this number only includes the ones about which the early 20th-century historian Rotha Mary Clay could reliably verify. To put it into context, in Norwich alone she found evidence of 14 hermitages and 18 anchor-holds. But this all came to an end at the time of the Reformation, when even a female anchorite who was over 100 years old was forcibly evicted from her anchorhold.

But what is this creature, a hermit or anchorite? It is someone who responds to Christ’s invitation to “come away to a lonely place alone and rest a while” (Mk. 6:31), whose heart and soul “is yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord”, because “my body pines for you, like a dry weary land without water. So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory.” (Ps 83:3 and Ps 62:2-3). Hermits like St John the Baptist, in being withdrawn from the world, tend to have a different overview of what is happening in the world, and so are voices “crying from the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mt. 3:3). And in this technological world that means careful use of the internet, therefore we have a website (Trumpeteer.co.uk).

Hermits must also be mindful of the Letter of St James: “If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the Scripture: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you do well. … If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:8, 14-17). Therefore hermits should, by one means or another, show charity towards others.

Before the Reformation hermits looked after the sick, maintained roads and bridges, and manned hermitages on coastal hillocks and cliffs, as at St Catherine’s on the Isle of Wight, so that they could keep a beacon burning to warn and guide sailors. Even anchorites, enclosed in their anchorholds, repaired the clothes of the poor. They were also “beadsmen”, praying for all who came requesting prayers. In fact Rotha Mary Clay states in her book, Hermits and Anchorites of England: “Hermits were the pioneers of philanthropic works which in these days are undertaken and carried out by public bodies.”

If people think of hermits at all, they usually think of them as solitaries or recluses, and that can be the case. But hermits often lived in groups (the Desert Fathers, for example) usually each to his own cell, but with the newer hermits sharing a cell with an “Abba” in order to learn the life first-hand. Medieval anchorites, on the other hand, were always solitaries, locked (or walled) up in a small dwelling attached to the side of a church, with a small window opening into the church through which they could see the Tabernacle and receive Holy Communion. Their cells were called anchorholds as they were supposed to “anchor” the church by their prayers. Although anchorites were solitaries, they were certainly not recluses, as they also had a window on to the street, through which they received their food, but also where people could talk to them and ask them to pray for their intentions. So all anchorites are hermits, but not all hermits are anchorites.

As far as what I personally do all day, I make candles and rosaries, I do religious embroidery and I try to pray. I pray for the world. I pray for those individuals who have asked for my prayers, I pray for the Church. I pray for the priests, both the good and the bad, but especially the bad, those to whom it can be said: “He that shall scandalise one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh” (Mt 18:6-7). And I pray for myself, that God may have mercy on me, a sinner.

To those who think that the hermit life is too horrific to consider, I would disagree, using the words of the 10th-century Eastern Orthodox hermit, Symeon the New Theologian:

Let me alone, sheltered in my cell.
Let me be with God, who alone is good.
Why should I move out of my cell?
Back to that which I left?
Let me be.
I want to cry and mourn over the days and nights I have wasted.

  • Poetess

    Praise GOD that His Spirit still calls, and is sometimes heard!

  • Annie

    A beautiful vocation.

  • Ida

     What a wonderful vocation!

  • Oratory80

    I am looking for a place of solitude
    I am in Uk –

    A Priest Monk
    oratory80@yahoo.com

  • Julie

    I too think this is wonderful, and may God bless her. But I’m a bit curious as to why the author is “anonymous.”

  • Michelle Francl-Donnay

    Just a clarification, anchorholds were not called that because they “anchored” the church they were attached to either literally or figuratively, but because anchorites — those who were withdrawn — live in them. Anchorite comes from the Greek “anchorein,” to withdraw.  

  • Pomarasr

    Informative and upbuilding.  Medieval anchorites, however, sometimes did live in small groups. The Ancrene Riwle (Rule of Life for Anchoresses) was composed by a priest for three women (family sisters, I think) who had withdrawn to an anchorhold and lived together there.  It is really early Middle English, hard to read unless you have studied the language, but M.B. Salu produced a good translation many years ago, most likely available through Amazon or somewhere.  It is considered a classic of early English prose.  I have heard of or read of a few hermits, esp. attached to Cistercian monasteries, but it remains a rare calling.  So many people, esp. the widowed and childless, or those whose grown children live far away, have little choice but to dwell in solitude, could be helped by advice about making a virtue of necessity by adopting some form of Rule of Life.  Phil O’Mara

  • http://mschaut.wordpress.com/ Anonymous

    I have long felt that kind of a pull from God, and no opportunities have shown up.  I’d love to see this form of lifestyle increase. The Church and the world need the prayer very badly. 

  • RW

    If you have this vocation, you make your opportunities where you are. No two hermits are the same.  Google “Raven’s Bread” newsletter for English speaking hermits, and see how others work out this vocation. 

  • RW

    Hermits have a hidden, humble vocation and do not want their solitude invaded by the curious, even those asking prayer.  Be assured they are praying for you! 

  • RW

    Google for & advertise in “Raven’s Bread” newsletter for english speaking hermits.  

  • Veridiana

    Wonderful article. I have always felt drawn to the hermit life –  I chose a medieval anchorite (St.Veridiana) for my confirmation saint. Lovely to read about a contemporary hermitess. May the Lord bless you and keep you. :)

  • http://mschaut.wordpress.com/ Anonymous

    I am already living a solitary life where I am at. It is the necessity of working and providing at higher costs and lesser income that prohibits more prayer, and remoteness along with expense make mass attendance and adoration near impossible. In a  land of plenty where such things are not an issue, a comfortable solitude and prayer life may be easier to attain.  There is a great deal of scorn, and social punishment, for those who aren’t working in the larger society sense, and on occasions it makes it harder than ever.  No support for the spiritual challenges and battles.  I still wouldn’t trade the solitude, and now prefer celibacy.  Just doing the best I can without gov’t or friend/family support.

  • RW

    Then you are an authentic hermit –most live the life of poverty and marginalization and even contempt you describe: and their solitude is rarely comfortable,  Having the right spiritual director can help.  If you haven’t found him/her pray for this persistently & at the right time they will come.   

  • rosek

    Just for clarification, are you still living with a bed area, a shower and an enclosed garden of 10 feet and an oratory opening on to “our” chapel?  It’s not clear reading this article if you are still doing that or not. And who  is the “our” of “our” chapel?  Friends or a church? Or your own chapel?

    This article implys that this arrangement was in the past but I may be mistaken.  If that is not the case now, are you still enclosed in some sort of hermitage?

    I feel like a hermit sometimes…trying to do prayer during the day, mass and benediction, but impossible to be enclosed at this point. I would really appreciate your answers to all the questions because I’m wondering if there is still hope for someone like myself considering such a life!

  • hermit

    I was edified by this article and also the comments.  I am a canonical diocesan hermit in the mountains in Europe and I totally agree that no two hermits are the same.   I also was shocked when I discerned God’s ‘call’… I did not even know what a hermit was.  I was a joyful cloistered sister for a long time and  believed that was to be forever.  Only God Himself could have led me out of the cloister.  The day I stepped outside the enclosure door amidst embraces and tears, I felt like I was entering into the “Cloud of the Unknowing” (for anyone who might not know that is the title of a spiritual book by an unknown author).  It is a sublime vocation of living “alone with the Alone”.  I am both humbled and amazed by the incredible grace of becoming a hermit and I believe the ‘becoming’ will be the work for the rest of the days that God has allotted to me.  I beg your prayers that I will be a faithful servant for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

  • Micevelo

    What of those who live in the world but feel a call to celibacy. there is provision for women but not for us men. Any advice? I’d love to live the eremitical life but I have to work to live.

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  • Sani

    I too have considered the life of an Anchorite and have wondered how I go about this. My call comes when I am chaplain at the cathedral. It is the prayer that it is so important and I feel that we need to be there praying for others and listening to their situations. Thank you for this. S.Lee

  • LH

    After several years’ being self employed and working from home I now have to work outside the home full time in order to provide for myself. I have had a vocation to lead the eremitical life from being a child but circumstances (being brought up in a different church where there are no forms of consecrated life, for example) have never worked out, and I’m now 50 so I’m running out of time. I chose celibacy 20 years ago and pray the divine office; I am hoping to be received into the Catholic Church soon, and attend Mass frequently. I shall google Raven’s Bread as suggested to see how other hermits or anchorites are “doing it” and I have decided to talk to my parish priest about entering the consecrated life sooner rather than later. Please pray for me. I pray we shall all be able to live in accordance with our call.