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The Anchorite Tradition of Voluntary Incarceration and Devotion to God
An anchorite or anchoret (anchoress being its female form) was person who chose to “live alone in prayer to worship God, unceasingly and without distraction.” Although other Christian ascetics share the goal of the anchorite, for instance hermits who lived in the deserts, there are certain features that separate the former form the latter. Generally speaking, an anchorite refers to one who was “walled into a small cell which was attached or 'anchored” to a church or oratory.” The anchorite tradition was particularly widespread in the British Isles.
What is an Anchorite?
The word ‘anchorite’ is derived from the Greek άναχωρητής (anachoretes), which in turn comes from the verb άναχωρειν (anachorein), meaning ‘to withdraw’. Therefore, an anchorite is essentially one who withdraws from the world in order to be closer to God. The anchorites, as well as other Christian ascetic movements, drew their inspiration from the Gospel figures of St. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ himself, both of whom had spent time in the desert.
The Earliest Anchorites
The earliest Christian ascetics found refuge in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, where they lived in caves and tombs. Initially, the ascetics were guided only by their fervent desire for God. Soon, however, guidance was provided both by the Church and spiritual masters such as Saint Pachomius the Great (considered to be the founder of Christian Cenobitic monasticism), and Saint Anthony of Egypt (considered to be the father of organized Christian monasticism). Christian monasticism would spread from the Egyptian and Syrian deserts westwards into Europe and develop its own tradition.
One of these was the anchorite tradition, which flourished in England during the Middle Ages. The earliest examples of the anchorite tradition in England dates to the 11 th century and the practice reached its peak two centuries later. About 200 anchorites have been identified during this period. An important feature of the anchorite tradition is the anchorite’s cell, known also as an anchorhold, which were normally attached to or built close to churches. During the 14 th century solid stone structures came to be used, though prior to this period the majority of anchorholds were lean-to, wooden structures.
Who Were the Anchorites?
Both men and women were allowed to become anchorites with the former mostly being priests. It has also been found that throughout the Middle Ages the number of female anchorites outnumbered their male counterparts. One possible reason for this is that due to the many prejudices against women during this period, more women took up this vocation. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the range of religious vocations opened to women was less than those available to men, hence drawing them to the anchorite tradition.
How Did One Become an Anchorite?
Several steps were taken before one is allowed to become an anchorite. These include an investigation into the candidate’s spiritual reliability, financial security, his/her intended domicile, and the granting of an enclosure license. The final step before one became an anchorite is known as the ceremony of enclosure.
The earliest record of this ceremony comes from a 12 th century pontifical (a liturgical book of rites), in which the final liturgical moments of an anchorite’s life in the world is detailed. As such a ceremony is symbolic of the end of an anchorite’s earthly life, it is full of the rhetoric of death. In a sense, the enclosure is tantamount to an entombment.
Was Human Interaction Allowed?
Although an anchorite has renounced the world, it does not mean that he/she does not interact with other human beings. Companionship, especially with those of like mind or purpose was permitted and even encouraged on the grounds of the belief that to live completely apart from human converse would potentially harm the soul. Therefore, although the anchorites were enclosed in their cells, they had windows, normally one that looked into the church which provided the anchorite with a view of the altar and another that looked out of the church so that he/she could talk to visitors.
Is the Anchorite Tradition Still Practiced Today?
In England, the anchorite tradition continued until the 16 th century. The Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII effectively brought the anchorite tradition to an end. Be that as it may, the cells used by the anchorites remained and has been a subject of study by archaeologists.
Top image: Tebaide, by Paolo Uccello, Galleria dell'Accademia, Firenze. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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