The Ageing Anchoress


Anchorites were a phenomenom of the fourteenth century, not just in England but across Christian Europe. Women joined the movement as well as men, and were called anchoresses. The most famous person to adopt that life was called Dame Julian of Norwich. It involved being walled up in a cell in order to devote yourself entirely to God and to prayer.

In a sense this was an individualist version of monasticism, though not the isolated life of a hermit. The anchoress in her cell was less self-sufficient than the nun in her convent, and relied totally on the wider lay community to supply her needs. The cell tended to be built against the local church, with an opening into the church, to allow the anchoress to particpate in the routine of church services ; and there was another opening facing into the village square, to allow for food to be passed in and the slop bucket to be passed out.

That second opening was also useful for keeping an eye on town activities, for holding conversation and for offering advice. Dame Julian was recognised as someone who gave “good counsel.”

I believe the walls of the anchorite’s cell give us an image of old age.

Julian of Norwich, as depicted in the church of Ss Andrew and Mary, Langham, Norfolk. From Wikipedia

Julian of Norwich, as depicted in the church of Ss Andrew and Mary, Langham, Norfolk. From Wikipedia

The Ageing Anchoress Looks to the Future

In divine company night and day
the anchoress could not be lonely.

Did those dark walls
restrict her ? No, she soared.

But touched her own body from time to time,
guiltily acknowledging pleasure.

This does not matter, she reminded herself.
A life withdrawn

from slack and
vacuous companionship

means more alive
in all senses

alone with the Ultimate.
Time is better spent in silence

than in jabber and preen.
The walls pressed in.

She remembered her losses. She grieved.
She fingered the cruelty of her entombment

the dank stone. Here
at this last station

I shall meet my Redeemer.
He will sweep me up

into His bosom.
I shall doubtless swoon.

The Ageing Anchoress’ Window

I abhor my window, muttered the anchoress.
I cannot range the earth as my neighbours do.
Instead I’m caged with the terror of the Word
and my ageing sears me each slow hour.
Since I cannot shift my ground
let it at least be private to me
and not open court to any passing voyeur.

The villagers were alarmed, some resentful.
They went to the priest. Why does the anchoress
stick out her tongue at us from her window ?
Each day we feed her and clear her slops.
We expect a return more palateable
than the face of a gargoyle making mock !

The Ageing Anchoress at Exercise

The anchoress paced her cell -
first cross-wise, all the diameters

around the clock, her floor ;
then the circumference,

beating her sheer flint wall,
first clock-wise, then anti -

an ageing anchoress at prayer
patrolling the face of her silent days.

The Ageing Anchoress Declares her Love

Oh, my Redeemer, my sweet sparrow,
how much more

blood is left in you
yet to spill ? I kneel upon my shadow

in the stink of ages
of human waste,

covering my face in your blood. You
drench me, Lord. Only God

could carry so much blood
in Him, for torture

until Time’s end.
Oh my soft sparrow, mashed,

let my hands
cup you in worship.

I hold you. Forgive me.
Forgive all.

Our sin, you said,
is behovely.

The Last Days

Now she was old,
that body in which she’d gloried
turned torture chamber and public shame.

She took to leaning from the window
of her cell, desperate to counsel,
to connect.

She looked like a claw.
The villagers hurried past.
Her days emptied like lungs.

Statue of Julian on the front of Norwich Cathedral, holding the book Revelations of Divine Love

Statue of Julian on the front of Norwich Cathedral, holding the book Revelations of Divine Love

In his long poem “Four Quartets” TS Eliot quoted from her book: “All shal be well and all manner of thing shal be well. Sin is behovely.” Wonderful words. She couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that a God she loved so completely and whose love for her she felt so tangibly, could possibly send anyone to hell. Therefore she wanted to reassure all sinners: you’ll be ok – He’ll grieve and suffer but will not punish you.

She perhaps took a risk in writing that, as the times were as fraught then as they are now and people who said the “wrong” thing were often accused of heresy and burnt. What she was saying was not necessarily the same as the Church of that time was teaching.

Why did I start to write the poem ? The reference to her in Four Quartets, which I loved from my teen-age years, led me to her and to be intrigued by her. Then people in my own life, my mother and other close friends, become old. By chance I met an English poet called Elizabeth Bewick, originally from Durham but now living alone in a cottage in a village called Hyde, near Winchester. I began to visit her there quite often. Both Hyde and Winchester are full of remnants and traces of medieval life and religion and Elizabeth’s old cottage and her isolated life reminded me of an anchoress’ life. In effect the poem in some ways is about her. But in turn the anchorite life gave me an image for the life of any old person now, kept “alive” into extreme old age by modern medicine, but made less than fully alive by our society’s treatment of old age, depriving it of any real social role.

For me the best passage in the poem is part four. At university I was already being drawn to the fourteenth century and came across a book of devotional lyrics written at that time. Many seem merely conventional, and the same themes and forms keep being repeated. But some lyrics stood out from the others – as fresh and original and truly fervent. And these are so passionate and almost sexual in their adoration of the Christ figure bleeding on the cross. The passion but also mystery and strangeness of that stayed with me and maybe it comes out a bit in this passage.