The coronavirus pandemic has sent journalists, medical personnel, and politicians scrambling to their thesauruses (thesauri?) for synonyms often found in monastic lexicons. We’ve been advised to remain “sequestered,” “isolated,” “withdrawn,” “secluded,” “disengaged,” and even “cloistered.”

It’s the phrase “locked down” that reminds me of the monastics of the Middle Ages who were called anchorites. An anchorite was an extreme monastic who took vows to remain permanently in place in tiny quarters, often just a dozen feet square, usually built onto a church. Typically there were three windows in the space: one small shuttered window was cut into the wall shared with the church sanctuary. This was used for viewing the altar, hearing Mass and receiving the Eucharist. Through this window also, an anchorite might provide spiritual counsel to visitors. A second window allowed assistants to attend to the anchorite’s physical needs. And the third window, facing the outside but covered with translucent fabric, allowed daylight into the cell.

Some anchorites were actually sealed into their designated cell with a ritual similar to funeral rites, to signify their “death” to the outside world and their focus trained only on their devotion to God and the development of their soul.

Dame Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English anchorite. At the time, the citizens of Norwich were afflicted by poverty, famine, and the devastating Bubonic Plague. She was a spiritual counselor to people in great suffering. Yet, her writings are suffused with hope and trust in ultimate goodness.

In her book, Revelations of Divine Love, Julian records a series of revelations (“the showings”) she received during a critical illness in May 1373. This book is the earliest extant book written by a woman in the English language. Despite her self-isolation seven centuries ago, she is honored today as a mystic, an unconventional theologian, and a compassionate prophet for our times.

Hildegard of Bingen was an 11th century German monastic. She became an anchorite at the age of eight. She penned hundreds of letters in her lifetime. She wrote volumes on mystical theology, natural history, music theory, medicine and healing, and literature. At the age of 36 she was released from her anchorhold to become leader of the religious sisters of her Benedictine monastery. She went on found several other monasteries as well. She frequently crossed political swords with the hierarchy of the Church (and usually got her way).

In our present age our stay home/stay safe mandates are not as stringent as being walled up in a tiny cell, though for some of us they may have seemed so. Yet, along with those of us who have recovered from or are still safe from the virus, I will long remember what has been emerging from our confinement – art, music, creative cuisine, supportive essays, poetry, face mask patterns, do-it-yourself hand sanitizer recipes. We’ve mastered (or bumbled through) Zoom sessions, connected with friends, family, congregations, even choirs and orchestras; we’ve altered our teaching styles, our learning disciplines; we’ve taken workshops and boned up on that hobby we always wanted to perfect – or to start.

When our lock-down is ended, and the danger of Covid-19 infection has abated, I will not have accomplished anywhere near what Hildegard and Julian did. But these are four ways I will have used my personal “anchorite time”:

1) I’ve tried to practice daily the spiritual exercise of tonglen, especially since I can’t seem to resist reading the dreadful digital headlines as infection counts and body counts rise, and many of our elected leaders seem immobilized. A few years ago I wrote, “The variation of tonglen that I use is basically simple breathing. It begins with being aware of what is before me, particularly whatever is dark, uncomfortable, painful, helpless, marginalized . . . I focus, then, on my willingness to be made useful and my prayer to be kept safe as I “breathe in” these sinister things. For the brief time between the in-breath and the out-breath, I imagine that whatever is negative and dark and hidden will be transformed within me, and then I exhale whatever is positive and light, for the benefit of all beings . . . Sometimes I don’t even set an intention with each breath; I simply ask at the beginning of the day, or at the start of a difficult part of a day, that my breathing be used in this transformative way. Then I just breathe through the day, trusting that my having asked, and being willing to participate, will be enough. And I offer a single heartfelt sigh of gratitude at the end of the day for all that has been transformed by the simple act of tonglen breathing. ” (Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Society’s Invisible People, pp. 142, 143)

2) I have made a point of saying “I love you” to others, as often as it is true.

3) As if I were in an anchorhold, I have paid attention to the smallest of pleasures, like the joy of a Christmas cactus, my companion beside the chair where I write; it is blooming for the first time in four years. Maybe it just needed more noticing.

4) In seclusion it’s a little easier to focus on that most difficult of questions: What do you MOST want of this lifetime?  And I keep coming back to this answer: I want to listen, and to notice; I want to try to capture the heart of people’s stories, and the noticing of lovely things, in words worthy of their beauty. In poems and essays I want capture profound human stories. I want to look at the world around me and proclaim, “Hey, my friend, look at THAT!”

Since that is what I most want in this life, I’m happy to announce that I have four poems being published in literary journals in June:

Conclave Literary Journal (Balkan Press) is publishing

“Argot of a Feral Life” (a prose poem) and

“Filling in the Gaps”

Inscape Magazine (Washburn University) is publishing

“Widow’s Walk” (a villanelle)

and Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing (online) is reprinting

“Loving Mother Anyway” (published in this blog last month).

Plus, there is a brief piece of mine printed in the “Readers Write” section of the June edition of The Sun Magazine.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, from seclusion in my little “anchorhold” on Whidbey Island to yours, wherever you may be, I send you blessings for health, patience, a strong circle of supportive friends, and lots of creativity.

14 replies
  1. Ann Linnea
    Ann Linnea says:

    Wow, Cynthia! Beautifully, thoughtfully written! I do know the story of anchorites—have even viewed a few of their cells. Astounding and nearly incomprehensible to me who treasures the immensity and beauty of our nature haven here on Whidbey Island. And that is the way of the world, different spiritual journeys for our respective souls.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I would like to have been there to see what the actual cells looked/felt like. Given our rapidly-changing circumstances, it’s unlikely now that I’ll ever get the chance. I wonder what Julian and Hildegard and the others would make of this strange time in history . . . probably they would have done what they always did – focus on God and on their marginalized brothers and sisters. Not sure I could have lived an anchorite’s life, but I certainly can learn from their wisdom!

  2. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    My window has given me the gift of greater intimacy awakening spring brings to everything Outside my window. The once bare bones of trees have slowly unfurled leaves and invited many bird species to visit. I have watched one build a nest, lay eggs, sit patiently, then busy herself with the job of finding worms for her scrawny babies that are fully feathered within 10 days and hardly leaving any space for mom
    Though I spend hours at my computer, it is actually that window and the constant draw of plants displaying new blossoms by the hour, the new quail family, the newly born fawn bouncing, four feet in the air, along its mother, and all those baby bunnies, that hold my attention
    As I breathe in and out, I find myself living here and now in this space more fully.

  3. Janice O'Mahony
    Janice O'Mahony says:

    “Maybe it just needed more noticing.” That’s a thought that will be of great help to me today. Your clarity about what it is you want to do in your writing is inspiring. Perhaps that clarity is ushering your work out into the world, to be read and appreciated as it should be. I love you, Cynthia, because that is true.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It is SO good to share our regular writing space and time with each other and the Muse. It’s a trio that fosters love and creativity – a rich, nourishing combination. Truly, I love you too.

  4. Jerry Millhon
    Jerry Millhon says:

    Cynthia, your words always stir me. I must assume that few anchorites ever left their cells (Brunhilda excepted). We on the other hand will see the light of day perhaps with new found spirit! It is interesting that hidden or small moments pleasures do seem to appear in this time. And I appreciate those gifts. But that tantalizing question of what life and living means to me these days circles around seeing with my heart and loving more. Your words were helpful.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      “Seeing with my heart and loving more.” Oh, Jerry, how wonderful it is when we get to serve and prophets and preachers for each other, and to bless each other in that service. I wish I had better words than “prophet” and “preach” and “bless” – those sound so institutionally religious, when what I mean is much simpler and more profound than that. I’m so glad we’re in conversation together on the Journey.

  5. Claudia Walker
    Claudia Walker says:

    Dear Cynthia,
    This touched my heart and the artist in me. And, I grabbed our June Sun magazine and quickly read your story of giving massages to the homeless in the Tenderloin Dist. of San Francisco. Thank you again and again for your fearlessness, for your compassion and courage to act.
    Please expect a call from me soon.
    Love, Claudia

  6. Johnny Palka
    Johnny Palka says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Thank you for these inspiring thoughts. I especially loved reading about your deepest wishes for this lifetime. A year ago, mine might have been similar. Now, with Yvonne’s passing, they are very different. What I most wish is that I will have the days needed to finish the memoir I have been working on with great intensity – “The Journey Together of Johnny and Yvonne As Seen Through Johnny’s Eyes.” I am cultivating very close and loving connections with a number of people, family and otherwise, but it’s the account of Yvonne’s and my shared journey that I most want to be able to complete. Thank you for helping me articulate what I have been feeling inwardly for many months now!

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Seems to me that our wishes for our lifetimes are the same: to describe, in the most articulate and beautiful words we can find, the stories that others won’t get to experience unless we tell them! I have no doubt that you will craft exactly the memoir you hope for. Let’s keep encouraging each other as we make our separate ways together – you and me and the Muse!


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