At least since the days of the Desert Mothers in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, there have been women in the Christian tradition (and doubtless other traditions) who have lived lives in religious solitude, whether by choice or circumstance. In Medieval Europe many churches had anchorholds, small enclosures inhabited by men or women dedicated to a life of solitude and prayer. The word anchorhold implies that the presence of the anchoress or anchorite grounded the church community, but the word derives from the ancient Greek verb (pronounced anachōreō) for to retire or withdraw. Anchoress Julian of Norwich is still revered as the author Revelations of Divine Love, possibly the earliest surviving book written by a woman in the English language. Six centuries after her death, her vision of Jesus our Mother continues to challenge, comfort, and inspire.
I grew up in an Episcopal rectory, daughter of a secretly agnostic mother who loathed being a minister’s wife (living in a fishbowl, she said) and a father who preached and practiced the social gospel as had his father before him. If you weren’t directly feeding, clothing, visiting “the least of these my brethren,” your pieties (as my father dismissed them) were worthless. At every meal we prayed, “make us always mindful of the needs of others.” Selfishness and individualism were synonymous. The pronoun “I” was frowned upon. The only route to salvation was social and/or political activism. My father walked his talk, literally, taking part in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
When I was sixteen, I found myself drawn to Miss Sang, one of my father’s parishioners. I remember going with my family to dinner at her house, an old house, yet spacious and full of light. Instead of enduring an evening tagging along with my family, I had an epiphany. I sensed in Miss Sang a peace (hard won, I later learned) that I had never encountered in anyone else. Her wordless pleasure in simple things, setting a table, for example, mystified and entranced me. I wanted to know her. She graciously allowed me into her life, and became what I called my fairy godmother. She was the first woman I ever knew who lived alone, and she was the first contemplative Christian I ever encountered. She had done her share of good work in the world, including serving as an army nurse during the Second World War. But it was not her doing that defined her; it was her being. In my life, Miss Sang became anchorhold in both senses of the word.
Six years later, I began writing my first novel when I was a guest at Miss Sang’s house. My father had actively discouraged my desire to write, insisting that I knew nothing of the real world and could have nothing worth saying unless I worked as a social worker till the age of forty. In his view, writing novels did not count as service. Nevertheless, I completed The Wild Mother and have been writing novels ever since. It is noteworthy that most of my novels have hermits lurking in them somewhere, women in caves or on tidal islands or even in the gardens at the Temple of Jerusalem.
Now at sixty, after raising a family and directing a community center (and never feeling that I have done enough social or political action) I find myself longing for hermitage. I have moved to a place where I can explore what that means. Right now I am observing a six month moratorium on making new commitments. I do not want to re-create compulsive patterns in order to persuade my long-dead father that I am not a spiritual deadbeat. I want to deepen my understanding of service. According to an anonymous contemporary anchoress, hermits of old served as lighthouse keepers and spiritual counselors, offices which call to mind the Hermit card in Tarot.
It takes more than a hermitage or an anchorhold to make a hermit. Desert Mother Amma Syncletica notes, “It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.” I still have to elbow my way through a host of conflicting thoughts , but every now and, a clear voice comes through and the thoughts fall silent.
From my journal:
Outside this morning, I hear:
You there, I want you here, standing still,
a background, point of light, field of color
in what I am creating. Who are you to say:
“Don’t you think I should be doing something
more active, more useful, more…important?”
Who are you to judge? Have you seen the whole design?
Just be here, right here where I’ve placed you.
That’s all I’m asking of you. Do it.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.