We had our very own Anchoress back in the 14th century. She lived in Ash and Willow cottages down by the Tillingbourne , the river which runs through the village, and her father was a carpenter by the name of William. Her name was Christine; the cottages are still there, lived in by generations of other families.
There have been more famous Anchoress’ in Christendom, at least one of whom became a saint, but I think they are all saints, willingly closing themselves off from the world to devote their lives to God. In 1329, our Christine asked to be perpetually enclosed in a cell attached to the wall of the village church, where the opening through which she received her food still exists.
She can’t have been much more than a teen-ager when she made the decision, a decision which was so binding that to change your mind was tantamount to excommunication, thus everlasting hell. But the church fathers investigated her, her family, her life, her friends, to assure themselves that she was indeed chaste and virtuous before they would allow her the privilege of being shut up in a cell. No therapy to help her decide if this ambition was what she really wanted, of course, just proof that she was good enough.
After their investigation as to whether or not she was worthy of such a splendid sacrifice, the then Bishop of Winchester, wrote:
That, whereas she desires for the fulfillment of a better life to remove herself, and spend her life in the service of God and in all sanctity and chastity in the churchyard of the parish church of Schire aforesaid, alongside the church there, striving with her whole heart to endure henceforth perpetual enclosure; we are please to grant her our consent in this matter…”
I often walk along the path in Albury Park, where livestock graze on each side of the fence in spring and summer. There are ancient oak and chestnut trees with trunks several feet in circumference, which she might have seen as younger trees; would have seen the same view as I do across the valley to wooded hills, and seen the spire of the same church. It is a beautiful world, inspiring and soothing. I can almost imagine her gratitude to her God for creating such a world, and to believe an even better one awaited the faithful. I can understand her wanting to make this huge gesture with all the idealism and passion of a young teen-ager, not fully aware of the consequences.
Then, too, I can imagine that the lives of women were not so inviting to an intelligent and ambitious young woman, as I imagine she was to take such a step. She might have married a labourer , borne several children, half of whom would die, worked hard every day to keep up with the necessities of a large family. Or she might have become an ordinary nun, living in a convent, spending her days in prayer and contemplation with other nuns. But that would not have been enough for Christine.
So she was enclosed.
But in 1333 there is another document. It is a request for the re-enclosure of Christine. She had changed her mind, sometime between 1329 and October, 1332. Letters were written for her (she probably couldn’t write, females not being educated), requesting to be re-enclosed. We don’t know how long she was out of the cell, only that she “had left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world. Now with God’s help changed in heart, wishing to return to her former abode and calling, she has humbly petitioned us that she may be treated mercifully by the Apostolic See” . Mercifully!!!!
The letter asked that she be permitted to return to her cell “lest by wandering any longer about the world she be exposed to the bites of the rapacious wolf and, which heaven forbid, her blood be required at your hands”.
Further, if she behaved herself after being re-enclosed, she would be granted a “penance in proportion to her sin; if, however, she neglects to come to you ….. henceforward she shall lapse into the sentence of excommunication. ” So “the said Christine shall be thrust back into the said re-enclosure”, there to contemplate her “nefarious” sin, and be saved .
It is difficult for my 21st century mind to wrap around the language of censure in these documents aimed at a young girl who changed her mind about being shut up in a cell for the rest of her life. Nothing could be more understandable. But it was breaking the vow which was such a huge sin; she might have lost her virginity, too, out here in the big, bad world, and thus her immortal soul!! There must have been tremendous pressure in the form of certain hellfire and guilt for a sensitive and religious young person to return to her cell. Cells and isolation in our day are forms of punishment. Back then, punishment for being human? For being susceptible to temptation? For being young and full of vitality? Was it a true choice for her to go back in?
We don’t know when she died. But I wonder, how long can you live without sunshine?
- Another Remembrance Day —
- We are into a cold snap, 2010, But —-