Living for the Revel (catvalente) wrote,
Living for the Revel

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Rules for Anchorites

So I have this obsession. It's been going on for awhile--since early graduate school, when instead of taking the easy route and getting the damn English Literature degree, my brain took a hard left at Medieval Studies. So it's been about 6 years now, (which seems obscene! It was yesterday I was that dewy just-married thing poking about in Old French books and cuddling up to a life of compromise and loneliness). It's an obsession that fueled the title of this blog, the icon to your left, and is but one of the reasons I own a pair of manacles.

I'm talking about anchorites, baby. Nuns. Supernuns.

People tend to get these perplexed looks on their faces when I light up and tell them I think of myself as a nun. I get so excited I can hardly explain it, and that seems strange of course, after all, I'm neither Catholic nor celibate, with no intention of becoming either. But it's like explaining to someone how you know what your totem is--impossible, but necessary for the understand of this driven, jittery girl. Allow me to explain.

An anchorite (or anchoress, take your pick--I prefer the non-gendered term) is a nun, but not really. A nun becomes a bride of Christ; she is married to God in her initiatory ritual, and lives her life in a commune, a cloister, intimately connected to her sisters and the world, for whom she works and toils.

And anchorite is straight up punk rock. Her initiatory ritual is a funeral. She dies to the world. She is closed up, alone, in a small cell attached to a church, called an anchorhold. Often she is initially buried there, and exhorted each day to dig up the soil of her grave with her fingernails. Sometimes she is manacled, bound to her duty. A priest tends to her, but more often, the folk of the village come to her, bringing bread, milk, honey, beer, fish, listening to her wisdom. She meditates, she fasts, she flagellates, she spends her life in contemplation and deprivation, and often, as in the case of Julian of Norwich, writing books. She is directly connected to God--her spirit goes into the ether, and brings back visions to her village. She is an oracle, an academic, a hermit in the midst of life.

Except there's this little document called Ancrene Wisse. Rules for Anchorites. On the theory that there wouldn't be rules about things that people weren't doing, the lives of anchorites seem to have been not entirely hair shirts and flagellation. You may not have overnight male guests (so they should definitely leave before midnight), large banquets, more than two handmaidens. It's not all merriness--there is a lot of talk about rotting in one's cell and how one should "love your windows as little as you can" and never let a man touch you through the window--unless he can provide excellent reason he should be allowed to. One must also pray less in order to read more, for "reading is good prayer." The Song of Solomon is used to illustrate how Christ feels about anchorites, and we all know how that little ditty goes.

The accompanying document to Ancrene Wisse is Hali Meidhad, A Letter to Maidens, which explains to three young girls that life in the medieval world plainly sucks, and to be married to a man who will make you clean and cook for him, fuck you until you bleed with no care for whether you enjoy it, only to die in childbirth, is pretty much a drag. Being an anchorite, on the other hand, is awesome. It was freedom. It was surcease.

I'm fascinated, always and utterly, by the idea of such a woman. Removed from the world yet deeply in it, privy to all the secrets of her town, cared for by folk while she reads and writes, while she watches wheels of fire spinning in the heavens. To be chained, to be disciplined to a lifelong task, to be a wild thing clapped up in darkness for such a purpose. You can see why this might appeal to someone like me. It brings strange tears to my eyes to read Ancrene Wisse, which is separated into the Inner Rule and the Outer Rule for governing one's life, and is obsessed with animal symbolism and endless classification, as I am, as I am.

And there were many of them, a network of women in holes, a network of light across wild fields and dark barns, women in ecstatic activity, touching the edges of the world.

Secretly, though I do not believe in a Christian God, this is what I want to be. I want to be a cyber-anchorite, chained to her computer, which is the church of the modern world, lifting her pelican-heart to heaven and bringing down such mad, beautiful, impossible books as live among the clouds. Manacled hands on a keyboard of light. A movable anchorhold, an izbushka. Tended to by a stern priestly-wicked thing who loves and fears and blesses. Receiving all who need her, trading words for bread. Conscious of death, racing against it. Closed up safe in her own little house, just big enough to contain her. I want, silly as it sounds, to sit at the edge of the internet, which is my village, and seethe as madwomen do, take a man's name, shed my clothes and utter terrible, marvelous verses. To be so full of purpose that I shine. I am at my best when I am an anchorite. I am at my worst when I have forgotten how to go to ground.

And to put out my hand through my beloved window, from time to time, to clasp another's skin and kiss their fingers.

The wilderness is the solitary life of the anchoress's dwelling, for just as in the wilderness there are all the wild beasts, and they will not endure men coming near but flee when they hear them, so should anchorites, above all other women, be wild in this way...

--Ancrene Wisse
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