The Way of an Anchoress

In Christianity, an anchoress is a woman who chooses to withdraw from the world to live a solitary life of prayer and mortification. Julian of Norwich was an anchoress whose writings tell of her life and spiritual journey. The word anchoress comes from the Greek “anachoreo” meaning to withdraw. By the Middle Ages, the anchoress was enclosed within the confines of her cell. Most often the cell was attached to the parish church. This means the anchoress was not cut off from the world. Instead, she was anchored in it.

In the thirteenth century, a “Rule of Life” was created for anchoresses. This Rule, known as the Ancrene Wisse was a guide for female recluses. Written to three young sisters of gentle birth, it taught what anchoresses should and should not do. The Rule decreed that the cell of an anchoress should have three windows. One window was to open into the church so that the anchoress could receive communion. The second window was to allow the anchoress to be in contact with her assistant. The third window allowed people to come and seek her wisdom, advice, and prayers. This can be seen in the picture below. The illustration, from the Parker Library, is courtesy of the Masters and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

You can learn more about the life of the anchoress in this day and age by going to The Anchorhold. The creator of The Anchorhold writes: “An anchorhold is the residence of an anchoress. An anchoress is a person living a solitary life of prayer and contemplation. The one who maintains this site lives a life of solitude and prayer in the world. This site is the window of my cell to all who seek life, hope, truth, the spiritual and meaning in their lives.”