Not a real anchorite?

When I decided to call myself “an involuntary anchorite” in my lockdown blog, I realised that it was either a joke (like a duchess calling her stately home “my little place in the country”) or immensely arrogant. Loretta lived in one room about the size of our parlour: I have two other sitting rooms as well as a bedroom and a garden in my “enclosure”. I have three or four hundred books to read – and can get more for my Kindle anytime I wish – whilst she would probably have had three or four at most – before the invention of printing even great monasteries would have fewer books than I do.

I also have a kitchen, which means that my life can include the practical pleasures of cooking and soothing physical jobs like washing up. Like any noble lady Loretta would not have cooked for herself even if she had access to a kitchen. Presumably she must have cleaned her own room as there was no-one else to do it, but otherwise her life would be a bit like living in a retreat house, with others taking responsibility for the practicalities of life.

I am sharing my isolation with my husband Yvan and Poppy – a delightful shit zui dog inherited when my mother died a few months ago, and an excuse for walks and a constant source of joy and amusement. Anchoresses were only allowed a cat, and as dog person I would consider that a very poor substitute. And I do wonder how they stayed healthy enough to live into their 80’s, as Loretta did. Despite taking Poppy for a walk most days when on the first nice day for weeks I went out on my bicycle for 20 minutes I realised that I had become seriously unfit. It will take a few months of trips considerably longer than the hour we are allowed before I am fit enough for that other great medieval activity – going on pilgrimage.

So like many people in the 21st century I am in many ways much better off than any 13th century noblewoman, let alone an anchoress. But there are similarities too. Loretta had a window through which she could talk to those who wished to do so, and a manservant who could take messages around the country; I have email and the telephone. Both are ways in which one can influence others – as we know Loretta did by encouraging the Franciscans. I’m not sure my messages will be as effective but the intent is similar.

Another similarity is the relationship to the mass; Loretta took part in it through a window into the church; I can share in the Eucharist through the screen of my computer. In both cases the participation is real but somewhat different from the experience of Communion we are used to. But actually our experience now is perhaps closer to that of most Christians at most times. For most of us these days when we go to the Eucharist, Mass, Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion – whatever we call it – we expect to share physically in the bread and wine. But although the Ancrene Wisse advises that anchoresses should “attend” mass daily, they are only to take communion 15 times a year. By medieval standards this was frequent communion – many Christians would only receive once a year. In Orthodox churches it is still common for a minority to take communion at most services and even my parent’s generation were taught to take communion once a month, usually at a service at 8 am.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, and whilst it would be wrong to say that modern Christians are contemptuous of the Sacrament, we do perhaps rather take it for granted. An important reason for infrequent communion amongst so many groups of Christians was not that they didn’t think it important (although that may have been the case with some Protestant groups who saw the Lord’s Supper as merely a memorial meal) but because they thought it was VERY important. Careful preparation was needed – by confession to a priest, or by careful “self examination” for those wary of that practice. And fasting beforehand was important too – hence those early services, with much discussion as to whether a cup of tea beforehand was legitimate or not.

Perhaps taking part in services online where we cannot physically take the Sacrament will make us appreciate it more when we can do so, and also understand that there are other ways we can participate in the heavenly banquet.