Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Anchoress in the Loft

“Happy are they who dwell in your house! * they will always be praising you.”
Psalm 84:3

“How did we get a recliner and a coffee table up in the Rood Loft?” I asked Father Philip.  “Oh,” he smiled, “I guess you haven’t heard the story about our anchoress.”

But let me back up a bit.  I was a seminarian at the time, and a member of the congregation and an altar server at Pusey House.  Pusey House is technically not a church, but a “house of piety and learning,” and it’s the chaplaincy for high-church Anglican students at Oxford University.  It is housed in a beautiful neo-Gothic chapel, designed by the great Temple Moore, and the chapel is dominated by a life-size rood, a statue of Jesus on the Cross with St. Mary and St. John.  The rood is placed on a large platform called the rood-loft, a kind of balcony that goes across the breadth of the church about ten feet up, dividing the Chancel of the Church from the Nave.   If you’ve spent much time poking around old churches, you will know the Rood Screen, which is a smaller version of this—we had one in my last congregation that was maybe a foot wide.  But the Rood Loft at Pusey House was really a room of its own, 6 or 8 feet wide, with a tall stone parapet on either side.  I had been sent up onto it to retrieve some obscure liturgical implement, and that’s where I discovered the dusty recliner.

The Rood Loft, Father Philip went on to tell me, had been the home of Pusey’s resident anchoress for a few months a decade or so before.  An anchoress is a person called by God to a life of solitary prayer.  It’s a bit like a hermit, but while hermits tend to live in caves in the wilderness, anchorites or anchoresses live inside churches.  Back in the Middle Ages they were quite common, and Julian of Norwich, the beloved mystic quoted by Rev. Mary Thorpe in her sermon last week, was an anchoress in the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich back in the fourteenth century.  These days, they are much rarer.  In fact, as far as I know, the one from Pusey’s Rood Loft may have been the only anchoress in the modern history of the Anglican Communion.

She was a rather eccentric old woman who had presented herself to Father Philip claiming she had a vocation, and in an uncharacteristic fit of whimsy—or maybe it was spiritual obedience--he agreed.  Day and night, she stayed on the loft praying, reading and thinking.  She ate MREs, and only came down the stairs for showers and bathroom breaks.  For a while, it was deeply inspiring to everyone concerned, but then she went off her meds and things didn’t go so well.  She began to snore on her recliner during Father Philip’s sermons, and she would sing loudly when she wasn’t supposed to.  The breaking point came one Sunday morning, when she began throwing nuts at the priests while they were at the Altar celebrating High Mass.  She was sent packing that afternoon.

Now I confess that, like most of you, I find the concept of living as an anchoress a bit strange.  But there’s also something very powerful about making the house of God your home.  I loved that Chapel: the dear friends who gathered in it, and the beautiful worship that was offered there, yes, but also the stained glass, the lingering smell of incense and the musty prayer books.  The Chapel was a place of deep peace, where God seemed close at hand, “enthroned,” as the Psalmist says, “upon the praises” of his people.[1]

Today’s Psalm is about this longing to dwell in God’s House.  It may well have been written by an ancient anchoress, someone who lived within Israel’s temple.  For the Israelites, the temple was God’s dwelling in a singular way.  He had commanded Solomon to build it, and its Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant.  God’s Presence had rested there ever since He came with glory when the temple was dedicated by the king in the passage that is today’s Old Testament lesson.  Every day, in the temple, God’s people gave thanks to Him for filling the world with good things and preserving their nation in peace.  Every day, they sought forgiveness from Him in the sacrifice of atonement, and His mercy was poured out afresh.  At the great festivals, Jews gathered from every part of the earth to remember His goodness in the past and ask His guidance for the future.  It was their national home, the place where God was close at hand to renew and refresh them.

And naturally, some people felt drawn to remain there.  The temple wasn’t just a matter of altars and prayer halls.  Much of the complex was taken up with dormitory rooms.  These were for the priests and Levites to stay during their duty shifts, and for these ancient anchorites, who dwelt in the house of the Lord, praising him, as the Psalm says, continually.  You might recall one of them from the Gospels, the prophetess Anna, who had lived in the temple for many decades before rejoicing to see the infant Christ on the day of his presentation in the temple. 

The Psalmist sings of the joy of abiding in such a holy and life-giving place.  It is a beautiful place and a safe one, where God’s protection is assured, as He shelters His people like swallows in the shadow of the Altar.  Above all, the Psalmist speaks of the joy that comes from being in God’s Presence in His holy house.  The word “happy” recurs repeatedly in the translation we use—“blessed” is better, I think—a continued and sustaining gift from God.  His presence fulfills the deepest desire of Psalmist’s soul, and it calls forth a deep exaltation.  There flesh and heart cry out for the living God.   This is the language of destiny.  We are made to be in God’s Presence, in the company of His holy people.  This is our supreme good, the oft-hidden goal behind our straining after so many other things that never seem to satisfy.   It is a joy so great, that once we have found it, we would never want it to end.  Remember how the most-loved Psalm of them all closes—“surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of our life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

But unlike the Psalmist, for us that Presence is first associated not with a place, but a Person.  God’s mercy is poured out to us through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, and it is through Him that we draw nearest to the Father.  In our Gospel lesson, this is what He means when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  The temple was destroyed millennia ago, and the precious ark lost centuries before that.  But Christ lives forever, raised in glory on the third day.  He sustains us now by drawing us together and naming us His own, and then giving us His own precious Body and Blood, week by week in the Holy Eucharist. 

Tis building is a holy place, a sanctuary, as the temple was long before.  It is holy because Christ dwells within in it.  The great sign of this mystery is the light that burns here day by day before the tabernacle, a word that recalls the shrine where God dwelt with His ancient people.  In the tabernacle, we reserve the bread and wine that have been made Christ’s Body and Blood in at the Altar.  It is good to bow to it when we enter the church and to pray before it, offering our praises and petitions to the One who dwells within it. 

The call to serve God as an anchoress may be a rare one.  But this longing for God’s Presence, this delight in the Holy Eucharist and this love for His house have an important place in the spiritual life of every disciple.  These days, we tend to place great emphasis on doing God’s work in the world, being active, making things happen out there.  There are many good things about that, and it’s true of course, that Christ is often found out in the bustle of the world, especially among His beloved poor.  But our activism will be remarkably shallow if it is not nurtured by the blessing we find in here, singing God’s praises as the Psalmist did, resting in His Presence.   For the anchoress and the Psalmist, and also for each of us, He is the goal of all our striving, the source of our highest joy.  Abide with Him now, until He calls you to your true and perfect home, to rejoice in His Presence in heaven forever.

[1] Psalm 22:3

1 comment:

  1. Funny and lovely--a combination that you mastered long ago.

    I have had an idea related to anchorites for a long time. Maybe I'll get around to writing it some day. In my head, it's a novel, or maybe a novel with a long poem inside of it.