Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Manual for Nuns

Sometimes, devoting yourself to a religious life meant a life of service: going out into the world to help others. Sometimes, pursuing a religious calling meant withdrawing from the world as a hermit, living simply on your own in order to contemplate God. Sometimes, the withdrawal was more severe, and your desire to withdraw from the world meant enclosing yourself in a small space and avoiding contact with the world. The men and women who took this path were called anchorites and anchoresses.

Many anchoritic cells still exist—called anchorholds—small cells built into the walls of local village churches. They might have three windows: one facing the altar for observing Mass, one for food and drink to be passed into the anchoress, one for light from the outside.

The Ancrene Wisse (Old English: "Rule of Anchoresses) was written in the early 13th century as a guide for young women wishing to live the anchoress life. The context tells us it was written for three young women known to the author. We can also guess approximately where it was written—or at least where the author grew up—because of the West Midlands dialect used.

Because medieval manuscripts were copied by hand, mistakes could be made. There are nine copies of the Ancrene Wisse in various British libraries with tiny alterations, but the main message is the same. One of the pieces of advice is: 

No anchorite, by my advice, shall make profession, that is, vow to keep any thing as commanded, except three things, that is, obedience, chastity, and constancy as to her abode; that she shall never more change her convent, except only by necessity, as compulsion and fear of death, obedience to her bishop or superior;

 and when you wake in the morning:

When you are quite dressed, sprinkle yourselves with holy water, which you should have always with you, and think upon God’s flesh, and on his blood, which is over the high altar, and fall on your knees toward it, with this salutation, “Hail, thou author of our creation! Hail, thou price of our redemption! Hail, thou who art our support during our pilgrimage! Hail, O reward of our expectation!”

Although anchoresses by definition withdrew from the world, presumably avoiding fame and attention, at least one was well-known. Tomorrow we'll meet her.

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