A magpie moth on a blue flower A magpie moth on a blue flower

Ancren Riwle

Article by Sr Liz Rees OCV

Sr Liz OCV gave us a stimulating talk on the consecrated single life in the medieval Church. She began by commenting on the parallels between SCL and the beguinages where consecrated people were responsible for their own livelihoods.

She devoted her talk to reflecting on an article on single life in the Medieval Church written by Bishop Poore of Salisbury (d.1237). He wrote this article for a group of 3 women who wanted to live a vowed life. It is a sort of guidebook; a rule of life. He gives a variety of suggestions; some are specifically for vowesses; others cover the more general aspects of the spiritual life and holy living. His approach to making vows is this: one should make as few as possible because this means there are fewer to break. The vows that usually were made were; chastity, obedience to the Bishop and stability – staying in one place.

It was suggested that they might call themselves the Order of St James, because the author of this epistle makes a point of defining true religion and right order.

The women wore no special habit although they tended to dress similarly when together as an expression of their unity and love. Clothing was to be plain, warm and well-made.

They were to be Mary’s; not Martha’s: "Mary's part is quietness and rest from the world's din, that nothing may hinder her from hearing the voice of God". They were to live as frugally as possible: they were not housewives but church anchoresses. But austerity was never the aim; love was, because, those who love will be blessed.


They were counselled not to clutter their minds with too much praying. Reading is also good prayer for it teaches one how to pray and what to pray for. Devotion can arise from reading. The bishop also describes a simpler prayer, a 'creeping' to Jesus to hide in his wounds. This is perhaps the most beautiful paragraph in his book: "Name Jesus often, and invoke the aid of his passion, and implore him by his sufferings, and by his precious blood, and by his death on the cross. Fly into his wounds; creep into them with thy thought. They are all open. He loves us so much who permitted such cavities to be made in him, that we might hide ourselves in them. And, with his precious blood, ensanguine thine heart". 

Practical wisdom

And silence is a treasure. Talk should be wholesome and holy. Poore advocated as much silence as possible during Lent and Holy Week, but wants his three friends to talk if they are getting depressed or feel unwell. They should then tell stories to cheer each other up. Poore also advocates custody of the eyes. Their sight should be focused on their inner treasure, rather than on the outside world. Otherwise, they will become shallow and artificial. "A 'peering anchoress' is like a wild bird unhappy in a cage". Poore would like his friends to shut their eyes to earthly things so they can see heavenly things. And he promised them a special spiritual clearness and a special heavenly vision: "anchoresses, for their blindfolding here, shall there see and understand more clearly the hidden mysteries of God and his secret counsels." 


The bishop had a realistic attitude to sin. He knew his friends were not angels. If they were angry with one another, their lives would be pointless, and their prayers too. So she must try to soften herself again: to cast away quickly the rough skin that is about the heart. And if they feel lazy, they should think of Jesus who worked so hard on the cross for us.

Poore warned his friends against assuming that their strongest temptations had occurred in the first year or two of their religious life: "An anchoress thinks that she shall be most strongly tempted in the first twelve months after she shall have begun her monastic life, and in the next twelve thereafter; and when after many years she feels them so strong, she is greatly amazed, and is afraid lest God may have quite forgotten her, and cast her off. Nay! It is not so. In the first years it is nothing but ball-play". "Now that their life is deepening and maturing, the 'fiend's puffs' will blow stronger". Even Jesus was tempted more strongly when he went out from the people into the desert.


The bishop has some interesting thoughts about confession. He recommends a thorough approach. His friends should be like the woman turning out her house. She makes a huge pile of all the rubbish, and gets rid of it. Then she gathers up all the remaining rubbish, and gets rid of that, finally she sweeps away the remaining dirt. "In like manner must he that confesses himself, after the great sins, shovel out the small, and if the dust of light thoughts fly up too much, sprinkle tears on them, and they will not then blind the eyes of the heart". The 'sweepings‟ that Poore suggests as matter for confession were concrete and ordinary, sins regarding food and drink, 'too much or too little, of grumbling, of morose countenance, of sitting too long at the parlour window (to gossip), of hours ill said or without attention of the heart or at the wrong time, of scornful laughter... In an age of extravagant penances, the bishop requests that the only penance be the life they lead. ' 


These are some of the practical implications of a single life lived out in God's presence. Can we also draw up a theology of the solitary life valid in Poore's day and in ours? Are there some underlying assumptions and beliefs that apply to the solitary of any age, and to some extent, to the single Christian of any age? Bishop Poore seems to think so. For him an anchoress is 'anchored under the ship of the Church as an anchor under a ship, to hold the ship so that neither waves nor storms may overwhelm it.'

This whole way of life is a strong penance, but it is a sharing in Christ's cross, and therefore something glorious.

'All that ye endure, my dear sisters, and all the good you ever do and all that you suffer is penance. It is all like martyrdom to you in so strict an order, for you are night and day upon our Lord's cross. Glad may you ever be thereof. St Paul said, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.'

If the single Christian approaches the cross with this attitude, he or she will come to know the delightful tenderness of God. The bishop urges his friends to come to God and be loved by him. 'Go you immediately to your dear and beloved spouse, and make your complaint in his ears who affectionately calls you to him with these words, "Arise and come to me. Let me see thy dear face. Who hath hurt thee, my dear? Sing in my ears; speak only to me.' "

Here lies the secret of the single life towards God. It is not being left on the shelf. It is not even something that we do for God. It is something that the Father does for us, he who 'doth it for the great love that he hath to us'.

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