The ul­ti­mate iso­la­tion cham­ber

An­choresses re­tired from the world in or­der to dis­cover a new, mys­ti­cal one

BBC History Magazine - - Medieval Mystics -

While mys­tics such as An­gela of Foligno chose to get closer to God by be­com­ing prom­i­nent, ac­tive mem­bers of their com­mu­nity, oth­ers dis­ap­peared from their com­mu­ni­ties al­to­gether. Women who did this were called ‘an­choresses’ (af­ter the an­cient Greek verb ana­choreo, which means ‘to re­tire’ or ‘to with­draw’), and their par­tic­u­larly ex­treme brand of mys­ti­cism saw them en­ter self-im­posed soli­tary con­fine­ment for the rest of their lives.

To be­come an an­choress, you first had to have enough wealth and sta­tus to per­suade a bishop to sup­port you. Once you’d done this, you would en­ter a small cell, usu­ally ad­join­ing a church. As you did so, a priest would read you the death rites (af­ter which you were con­sid­ered metaphor­i­cally dead). And here you would re­main, with the cell sealed up be­hind you, un­til your death. Some­times, the an­choress’s grave would be pre­pared dur­ing the cer­e­mony and kept open in the cell, a re­minder of her mor­tal­ity. Her life would now fol­low a strict religious timetable, in­volv­ing cy­cles of prayer and pen­i­tence.

To most peo­ple today, this may sound like a vi­sion of hell, but it had its at­trac­tions back in the 14th and 15th cen­turies – per­haps be­cause it of­fered an al­ter­na­tive to the per­ils of mar­riage and child­birth.

And while an­choresses con­demned them­selves to ex­treme iso­la­tion, such en­clo­sure could act as a gate­way to an­other world – that of mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. A num­ber of an­choresses recorded vivid vi­sions which came to them in their tiny cells, vi­sions which could feel more real to them than their ev­ery­day life.

Ju­lian of Nor­wich (1342– c1416), one of the most fa­mous me­dieval an­choresses, spent most of her en­closed life (in a cell next to St Ju­lian’s Church, Nor­wich) record­ing and in­ter­pret­ing a se­ries of vi­sions in which she not only saw Christ bleed­ing on the cross but also con­versed with him about the­ol­ogy. In one par­tic­u­larly evoca­tive mo­ment, she records Christ open­ing up the wound in his side and show­ing her the cav­ernous space in­side – big enough to fit all of mankind within.

The an­choress Ju­lian of Nor­wich spent decades in a bricked-up cell, study­ing the Bi­ble and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vi­sions of speak­ing with Je­sus

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