Anchorites at large

Last Friday, I was sitting in the car dealership while my car was being serviced and watching the parade of images which made up a newscast on a muted television.  There they all were: the outside of an apartment building, a subway station in Greenbelt, people passing in a crowd — a host of places and lives to which I had no connection. I suddenly felt deeply estranged, as if I had cut myself off from all these ordinary people who were going about their daily lives. And yet, we each need to choose a place and a path, and any one place or path involves releasing other opportunities, other people, connections we might have forged in another life.

Spiritual seeking is largely about making those choices: whom to seek out, what to aspire towards, what to let go. Over the centuries, there have been some rather striking ways of seeking to put God first. Dame Julian of Norwich, whom the church commemorated yesterday, was an anchorite, a woman who chose to be walled into a one-room cell attached to a parish church in the late fourteenth century. There she spent the rest of her days in prayer, with a servant passing her food through a hole in the wall and various visitors coming to seek wisdom from the holy woman. It was a way of making a life centered in Christ — a way most of us would not choose to embrace.

And yet, I suspect that each of us does build an anchorhold of sorts: a small room, physical or psychological, which contains us and the people or things which matter most to us. We are finite, and we build walls to protect ourselves from the press of what we cannot understand or, understanding it, cannot embrace. We build them with our time, allowing the press of what we know to cut us off from what we have yet to experience. We build them with our ideas, our party affiliations, rejecting things that do not seem to fit, often without testing them to see whether they might be true. We build them with our culture, our pre-judgments, our fears. Often, like Julian, we find that they give us space to find God — and yet, God is also outside our walls, calling us to see God there, too.

When Lazarus died, Jesus called him outside of the tomb. He left his safe, small room  — the place of death, of grief, of decay — and followed the voice of God into new life. It is a task we much each undertake in this life, over and over again. When our room becomes stifling rather than safe, when our vision — once clear — becomes narrow and dark, when our walls cut us off more than they allow others in, then we must leave our anchorhold and step into a new room, a new way of being.

If you look at the shell of a chambered Nautilus, it is made up of a spiral of small rooms, each seven percent larger than the one before it. Even as the mollusk inhabits the room of its flourishing, the one that fits it perfectly at any given time, it is already at work constructing the room that is to come, the one it will grow into as it lives and breathes and has its being. That is what we do with God: we seek him where he is, as we are, knowing that, somehow, this will give us grace to grow and freedom to step into a way of being we cannot yet understand. We move from small to large, from constraint to freedom, from fear into love, growing in place until we find in Christ the house of our belonging.


I awoke
this morning
in the gold light
turning this way
and that

thinking for
a moment
it was one
like any other.

the veil had gone
from my
darkened heart
I thought

it must have been the quiet
that filled my room,

it must have been
the first
easy rhythm
with which I breathed
myself to sleep,

it must have been
the prayer I said
speaking to the otherness
of the night.

I thought
this is the good day
you could
meet your love,

this is the black day
someone close
to you could die.

This is the day
you realize
how easily the thread
is broken
between this world
and the next

and I found myself
sitting up
in the quiet pathway
of light,

the tawny
close grained cedar
burning round
me like fire
and all the angels of this housely
heaven ascending
through the first
roof of light
the sun has made.

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

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One Response to Anchorites at large

  1. Carlyle Gill says:

    Thank you, Deborah. You’re good!

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