As we farewell our friends and loved ones, buy enormous quantities of tinned tomatoes and prepare to enter a period of confinement, the lives of these religious devotees are worth consideringby Joanna Pidcock / March 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
Isolation is a strange thing. It is used as punishment—solitary confinement, house arrest—at the same time as people seek it out through retreats and wellness therapies. As a society we value people who are gregarious and fun, but throughout history we have sought out those who live in isolation for wisdom and guidance. Hermits, gurus, mystics, even artists and authors who are notoriously private about their personal lives—these individuals have long been objects of fascination.
There is a cultural pressure on a state of isolation to produce something profound. We expect to find some great truth or wisdom in isolation, or to finally have the space and time to write a magnum opus, a novel, a screenplay, a symphony. In the past few days on Twitter, there has been chat about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear and all of the sonnets while the theatres were closed during the plague. We expect that our experience of time will stay the same, and that the hours that were filled with commuting, office banter, socialising and pints will now need to be filled with an equal number of activities, done in solitude.
So as we all farewell our friends and loved ones with a pat on the elbow, buy enormous quantities of tinned tomatoes, and prepare to enter a period of confinement, it might be a good time to consider the anchorite.
Anchorites and anchoresses were religious devotees in the Middle Ages, predominantly women, who sealed themselves into stone cells attached to churches and cathedrals to serve out their days in prayer and contemplation. To become an anchorite, the prospective candidate had to write to the bishop and show that they were ready to be enclosed. They had to prove that they had sufficient financial means to support themselves in isolation, and one or two servants to bring food, take away waste, and help them with tasks in the outside world.
When an anchorite was ready to enter isolation, they were administered last rights, and a priest would say the prayers that are said at a funeral, symbolising the fact that the anchorite was about to be dead to the world, entering a space that would become…