What Does Anchorites Meaning? An In-Depth Look at the Ascetic Lives of These Religious Hermits

Secluded away in small cells, removed from society, lives a unique group of religious devotees – the anchorites. But what exactly does the term “anchorite” mean?

Introduction: Anchorites as Solitary Religious Hermits

An anchorite, also known as an anchoret or anchoress (for females), is a person who chooses to live in seclusion for religious purposes. Unlike hermits who may wander and relocate, anchorites take a vow of stability to remain permanently immured in one place for life. They withdraw from secular society to lead an intensely prayer-focused, ascetic lifestyle.

Anchorites are religious hermits who commit to permanent enclosure to devote their lives to contemplative prayer and spiritual intercession.

But why do they make this extreme choice? What is life like for these solitary individuals? Let’s explore the fascinating history and meaning of the anchorite tradition.

What Prompts Someone to Become an Anchorite?

What motivates a person to make the radical decision to be walled into a tiny room for life? There are a few primary reasons why an individual may choose the difficult path of the anchorite:

Religious Conviction

Most choose this lifestyle out of a deep religious commitment and desire to devote themselves completely to prayer and contemplation. Highly religious people may feel drawn to the spiritual richness of the anchorite’s practice.

Escape from Society

Some are driven by the need to withdraw from worldly distractions and escape a secular society they view as corrupt or sinful. The secluded cell provides sanctuary and spiritual protection.

Mystical Calling

Many feel an inner mystical “calling” to the profound experience of solitary communion with God. They follow this yearning for a lifestyle singularly focused on the divine.

Service Through Prayer

Anchorites firmly believe in interceding on behalf of others through continual prayer. Their physical isolation enables them to spiritually support society.

Expression of Devotion

For some, it is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice and devotion to God and religious faith. Their extreme commitment reflects spiritual intensity.

Promise of Salvation

Eternal salvation may also motivate anchorites, as they view withdrawing from the world as a path to greater assurance of salvation in the afterlife. Their lifestyle gains them merits in heaven.

The Origins of Anchorite Asceticism

Where did this practice originate? The anchorite tradition has roots in the earliest eras of Christianity:

Old Testament Influence

The Old Testament includes stories of prophets like Elijah who lived in caves and desert seclusion. This established the idea that isolation brought one closer to the Divine.

Jesus’s 40 Days in the Wilderness

Jesus’s 40 days of solitary fasting and prayer in the Judaean desert set a key example for anchoritic practice.

Early Christian Ascetics in Egypt

The tradition has early origins in 4th century Christian ascetics in Egypt, who withdrew to the desert for solitary spiritual commitment.

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great (c. 251-356 AD) was one of the first Christian hermits, living alone in the desert for decades and setting the prototype for anchoritic devotion.

St. Simeon Stylites

St. Simeon Stylites (c. 390-459 AD) spent 37 years living atop a small platform, cementing the idea of permanent stationary isolation.

So the anchorite lifestyle grew out of both biblical roots and an evolving medieval Christian asceticism that increasingly valued withdrawal from society.

What Was the Daily Life of an Anchorite Like?

The permanent enclosure of an anchorite required following a strict and challenging routine. What was their daily life like?

The Anchorhold

An anchorhold or “anchor cell” was a small room, typically no more than 12 feet, attached to a church or monastery. It had a window into the church and another opening for food.

Sparse Furnishings

Inside the anchorhold there was minimal furnishing – likely a wooden chair, a shelf for books, a cross, a chamber pot, and a hard single bed.

Daily Routine

An anchorite’s day revolved around prayer services in the church, usually six to seven times a day. The rest of their time was spent in silent contemplation, reading religious works, and offering intercessory prayers for others.

Simple Meals

Food was extremely basic, such as coarse breads, beans, and vegetables. Water was limited. Anchorites lived an ascetic lifestyle, fasting often.

Minimal Comforts

Bathing was infrequent. Toilet needs were met using the chamber pot. Anchorites detached even from bodily comforts.

Permanent Confinement

Other than attending adjacent church services, anchorites never left their cell – this confinement was lifelong. Doors were sometimes sealed shut.

Solitude and Silence

Sensory deprivation and isolation were key. Their lives were wholly solitary, the silence broken only by services and the rare visitor at the window.

Lifelong Commitment

Once immured in their anchorhold, anchorites remained there until death. Leaving was forbidden, so enclosure was permanent.

This sparse, minimal, isolated lifestyle reflected their singular devotion to the Divine. The door of the anchorhold was a threshold to a life utterly focused on prayer and renunciation of earthly needs.

Anchoritic Vows – Was it a Requirement?

Did prospective anchorites have to make specific vows before being immured?

  • Anchorites would make three vows before enclosure: obedience, stability of place, and lifelong chastity.
  • Stability of place was central – they vowed never to leave their cell until death. This distinguished them from hermits.
  • Obedience was to the bishop or abbot who provided spiritual supervision. Anchorites promised submission to their religious superiors.
  • Chastity and renunciation of marriage were required. Their only “spouse” was Christ.
  • Making permanent vows before immurement into an anchorhold was mandatory – it marked the initiation into this radical lifestyle.

So anchorites did have required formal vows prior to enclosure in their cell. These vows reinforced that their lifestyle was an intensely committed one with no turning back.

Famous Examples of Anchorites

While often forgotten today, anchorites were once greatly revered in medieval society. A few became remarkably famous:

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) chose to become an anchorite in England after mystical visions of Jesus Christ. Her meditations remain influential.

Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), renowned for mystical experiences, lived as an anchorite for three years prior to becoming an influential public figure.

Veronica Giuliani

Veronica Giuliani (1660-1727) was a revered Italian anchorite who reported visions and stigmata. She wrote heavily mystical spiritual accounts.

Dame Julian Lampron

Dame Julian Lampron (c.1260-c.1330s) was the most famous English anchoress of the medieval era, renowned for her learning and mysticism.

So anchorites represented the extreme of religious devotion – some became pivotal mystics and religious leaders.

Decline of the Anchorite Tradition

While anchorites were once fairly common in medieval Western Christianity, their numbers declined over time. Why did this occur?

  • The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century criticized such ascetic monastic traditions as unnecessary.
  • The English Reformation led to anchorholds being abolished and destroyed.
  • Societal and church reforms emphasized active service over monastic withdrawal from society.
  • The mysticism and extreme asceticism of anchorites became less popular over time.
  • Monastic traditions in general faded in Western Christianity, though Eastern Orthodoxy maintained solitary monasticism.

So by the 19th century, the once-widespread tradition of anchorites had diminished significantly. Today only Eastern Orthodox Christianity maintains examples of enclosed anchorites.

Why Does the Concept of Anchorites Persist?

While anchorites are rare today, why has the concept persisted over history and remainss meaningful?

  • Their extreme commitment has always evoked a sense of awe and fascination.
  • Their spiritual writings maintain relevance and wisdom for religious seekers.
  • Their chosen path represents the heights of devotional sacrifice.
  • The simplicity and focus of their lifestyle holds symbolic meaning for simplifying life.
  • They epitomize the potential for profound spiritual transformation through solitary religious practice.

So while anchorites emerged from medieval Christian asceticism, their dedication and symbolic spiritual power continue to inspire. The mystics among them connect us to creative possibilities of the soul. Their sense of service through prayer remains poignant. At its heart, their path reminds us of faith’s transformative potential.

Conclusion: In a Cell but Not in a Cell

In conclusion, anchorites were and are a unique type of religious hermit who commits to permanent enclosure in a cell. This enables them to wholly devote their lives to God through constant prayer, ascetic renunciation, intercession for others, and mystic contemplation of the Divine. Their extreme sacrifice has always fascinated the world beyond their cell walls. But they chose enclosure in the external world precisely to unlock infinite inner spiritual freedom and transcendence. In this way, though they were in a cell physically, they were in fact utterly free and unbound spiritually, revealing faith’s ultimate power to liberate. The anchoritic path thus remains an impactful reminder of the luminous possibilities within religious devotion. Their physical seclusion reflects the beautiful irony that true freedom comes from willful “imprisonment” to God alone.


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