Let your thoughts be on things above, not on the things are on the earth, because you have died and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. – Col. 3:2-3
“If a mad lion was running through the streets, would not a sensible woman shut herself in?” So asks the author of the “Ancrene Wisse,” a 13th century guide to life for anchoresses – women who elected to spend their lives in prayer, sealed into anchorholds within the walls of churches and monasteries.
There were waiting lists for some anchorholds. Frankly, at the moment, I’m not surprised. At half past eight, dinner cleared up, I went up to my study, leaving teens busy with homework and husband off to his night class. I imagined I might write this column. But…by 8:27, “Mom, can you help me?” At 8:49 settle squabble over computer; 9:19 locate clean socks; 9:31 bedtime; 9:42 phone rings.
Never mind the mad lion, this is enough to drive me to barricade myself in my room, if not seek an anchorhold within the walls of my parish church.
Anchoress derives not from anchor but from the Greek “anachorein,” to withdraw. Yet in some ways, the lives of these medieval women were no more or less withdrawn from the world than mine. Their cells had two windows, one looked into the church, the other out into the world – so passersby might seek their counsel, ask their prayers and be inspired by their lives.
Much like mine, an anchoress’ life oscillated between “sitting … stone-still at God’s feet, listening to Him alone” and earth’s interruptions at the window. In her essay, “Holy the Firm,” written while she lived in what amounted to a modern-day anchorhold on the Puget Sound, Annie Dillard captured this tension: “You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work.” There is prayer and work to be done on either side of the wall.
The unknown writer of the anchoress’ rule of life drew a parallel between the cross on which Christ hung and the cell in which she was held. An anchoress was dead in the eyes of the world – she would have been given Extreme Unction before she was enclosed – and now, as St. Paul would say, her life is “hidden with Christ in God.” As I read this section of the “Ancrene Wisse,” it stirred me to recall the words of one of the Eucharistic prayers: “he stretched out his arms between heaven and earth.”
If my life is now hidden in Christ, why am I surprised to find my arms stretched out between heaven and earth? To find that my times of stillness and silence succumb to the realities of life as the mother of teens when I least expect it?
My life is just an anchoress’ cell writ large. I look through one open window toward God in whom my life is rooted, through the other toward the responsibilities He has given me. My ability to weather mad lions (or teenagers’ tiffs) depends not on barricades, but on the balance between heaven and earth that the cross, like the anchoress’ cell, holds me to.
The anonymous author of the “Ancrene Wisse” ends by asking that each reader of anything in the rule “greet the Lady with an Ave Maria for him who wrote it…[m]oderate enough I am, who ask so little.”
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.