Are There Modern Anchorites?

Anchorites, or anchoresses, were individuals who withdrew from secular society for religious reasons during the Middle Ages. They led an intensely prayer-focused, ascetic lifestyle, often sealed inside small rooms called anchorholds that were attached to churches. While anchorites are similar to hermits, they take a vow of stability to remain in their anchorhold for life. At one time, anchorites were a common sight in England and across Europe. But do anchorites still exist today?

What is an Anchorite?

An anchorite is someone who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society to devote themselves entirely to prayer and religious contemplation. The word “anchorite” comes from the Greek word “anachōrētēs” meaning “one who has retired from the world” [5].

Unlike hermits who may wander from place to place, anchorites take a vow of stability to remain permanently enclosed in the cell or anchorhold where they live. Anchorholds were small rooms, often built attached to churches, that provided enough space for a covered altar, a sleeping area, and a hatch or window for food to be passed through [5].

The anchoritic life first became widespread during the early and high Middle Ages. Individuals pursuing this lifestyle were seeking a deeper relationship with God through intense prayer, asceticism, meditation on scripture, and a detachment from earthly concerns [5].

Anchorites in the Middle Ages

During the medieval period, the solitary life of an anchorite was seen as one of the highest forms of religious devotion. By the 13th century, every county in England likely had anchorites sealed into cells attached to parish churches [5]. Anchorholds were also common across Europe, especially in Italy, France, Germany, and the Low Countries.

Some famous figures became anchorites later in life, including the theologian Saint Jerome and Saint Werburga, daughter of the king of Mercia. Others entered the anchorhold as young adults or teenagers. Women made up a sizable proportion of England's anchorite population [5].

The most renowned anchorite of the medieval period was Julian of Norwich. As a young woman, Julian entered an anchorhold in Norwich, where she experienced a series of revelations that she later compiled into her book Revelations of Divine Love [5]. This was the first book in English known to be written by a woman.

Decline of the Anchoritic Life

The practice of women becoming anchorites came to be seen as problematic during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century [5]. Criticism of the veneration of saints and accusations that Catholics encouraged young women to “imprison” themselves also contributed to a decline.

But a small number of anchorites persisted in post-Reformation England, perhaps only a couple dozen by the early 17th century. Some continued living in medieval anchorholds, while others were enclosed in rooms attached to private homes [5]. However, the disruption of monastic life during the Dissolution of the Monasteries meant the institutional knowledge of how to live as an anchorite was fading.

Anchoritism in the Modern Era

By the 19th century, the anchoritic tradition had nearly vanished in England. But a fascination with medieval mysticism in the late 19th and early 20th century led to renewed interest in the vocation [5].

Several sources suggest that a small number of modern-day anchorites continue to live enclosed religious lives. For example, an article in Our Sunday Visitor provides advice to prospective modern anchorites on how to live out this calling [1]. A blog called Citydesert also discusses Sister Rachel, who was enclosed as an anchorite at an Episcopal church in Maryland in the early 2000s [2].

In the Catholic Herald, writer Joanna Moorhead describes how she herself became a modern-day “urban anchorite” in London in 2017 [3]. Inspired by medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, she converted a spare room into an urban anchorhold where she spent her nights in prayer and contemplation.

A poster on the Catholic forum Phatmass also suggests there are always at least a few anchorites living quietly in enclosure. However, they note that modern anchorites do not make vows in the same institutionalized way as medieval anchorites once did [4].

The Life of Modern Anchorites

Modern anchorites appear to follow a way of life with many similarities to medieval anchorites. According to Sister Rachel and other contemporary accounts, anchorites commit to live enclosed in a small hermitage or cell that is most often attached to a church or chapel [1][2].

They spend their days in prayer, contemplation, reading scripture, and religious writing. Their lives revolve around the Eucharist, including daily Mass if possible. Anchorites typically make an initial commitment of three years, after which they can choose to leave or commit to the lifestyle permanently [1].

However, modern anchorites have more flexibility than their medieval forebears. Rather than being permanently immured in their cells, contemporary anchorholds often have doors that allow anchorites to leave for necessities, appointments, or travel [1][3]. Nonetheless, they aim to spend most of their time in solitude and prayer.

Some modern anchorites also support themselves through artwork or other activities, rather than relying entirely on donations [2]. And current Catholic canon law no longer requires the same strict vows and authorization it once did to become an anchorite [4].

So while there are only a scattered few, evidence suggests a small number of dedicated individuals still feel called to follow the isolating yet spiritually focused path of life as a modern urban anchorite or anchoress. They withdraw from the world in order to deepen their relationship with the divine, just as their medieval predecessors did centuries ago.


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