From the Archives: Longing for Hermitage by Elizabeth Cunningham

This blog was originally posted on October 20, 2013. You can read the comments here.

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.

Categories: Art, Belief, Female Saints, Fiction, Foremothers, General, Social Gospel, Spiritual Journey, Vowed Religious, Women Religious, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Beautiful essay, Elizabeth. I miss your regular contributions to FAR. You write: “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 push back against this compulsion–still!. May we all learn to listen (and follow) the truth within our own hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really needed to read this.
    I am healing from a full hysterectomy due to endometriosis and an ovarian cancer risk. I’ve been feeling guilty for not being further along in this healing process. There are so many physical and emotional uprisings. It’s way more intense than I perceived it would be. Many people said you’ll be so happy to have that out of there! Peice of cake! I believed it. I wanted to. It’s our culture I think. Be a feel good story, rise above! Anyways I need to have compassion for myself and I practiced that by cancelling appointments to go back to work. It is my Birthday today and it is the best present I could of given myself. Thankyou for sharing. I am grateful.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well, my dear, you know I’ve been saying for years that you’re one of the best writers on the planet, so I enjoyed this post enormously. Anchorhold? Excellent idea. I’ve lived alone for years and do indeed sometimes feel anchoritic–I bet most of us felt that way during the pandemic–and blessed to be able to do my own work. You also know that I love The Wild Mother and your other novels. Please consider writing more for FAR. We miss you. Bright blessings to you and your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara, and thank you for all your posts, the serious and the light-hearted, always thoughtful and imaginative. As noted above, I hope to offer some excerpts as a guest contributor.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a beautiful piece!
    I can see the image of you “dancing on the horns of a dilemma instead of being impaled” … it really resonates!
    I am so glad that you found the safe space to write your first book… and all the rest that have followed!
    Thank you Elizabeth!
    I am a fiction reader mostly- as I find good characters and stories both nurturing and inspiring… and I have loved reading your books!
    Hearing a great book read by a great reader, goes into me in a different way. Have you ever considered that? I’d certainly enjoy hearing your books!
    Does your new book have a working title yet?
    Sending Spring energy your way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Pam, thank you for your kind words! I am a fiction reader, too, as well as a fiction writer. So the book-in-progress is a departure for me.

      The Maeve Chronicles (all four!) are available as audio books from audible. The reader Heather O’Neill does a brilliant job. This is my favorite form of The Maeve Chronicles. I hope to get a chance to record my other books someday. If you love listening, do treat yourself to Heather O’Neill’s reading of The Maeve Chronicles.

      The working title of the new nonfiction book is My Life as a Prayer. Thanks again for your response!


  5. A beautiful essay and one that resonates deep into my soul! My dream has always been to live in a little cottage in the forest by myself with no one around but the animals, trees, and little woodsy flora. It is so hard to go against what we have all always been taught about what is important and what we should be. I grew up reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and I have always seen that book as about this same struggle – she is someone who I think would have been very happy to sit in her attic and write what she wished, but who for most of her life had to go out into the world to make a living. But yet she found ways to create her own inner solitude and turn it into her writing that has inspired generations of women. I do think there is something about spending some time out in the world, as she did and you have, that makes it possible for those moments of solitude to be especially fruitful because we appreciate them more and have more life experience to be at the root of what we think and write in our quiet moments. Bless you for all your hard work, and I’m glad you are finding your solitude. But we do miss you and hope you will indeed share some of what you are writing with us in whatever role works for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Carolyn, and thank you for your beautiful writing and for your work in the world. As noted above, I still dance on the horns of the dilemma. World and hermitage, a living permeable membrane. Thank you for your thoughts on Louisa May Alcott (whom I can’t help picturing as Jo March). I think the morality that imbued the March girls’ childhood and young womanhood (and no doubt Louisa’s) was not so different from the one that permeated my youth. I still remember discovering Little Women tucked away in a drawer in the rectory guest room–possibly my mother was saving it as a birthday or Christmas present. I began reading it at once and read it many, many times.

      I will always be a writer but I still seek ways to be of more direct service. I hope to share excerpts from the new book as a guest contributor.


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