The Anchoress

by Jessica Hickey, (c. 2010)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
“Everything is a grace . . . Everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love--difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs--everything, because through them she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events--to the heart that loves, all is well.”
(St. Therese of Lisieux)

"Read assiduously and learn as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods, let it be resting on the sacred page."
(St. Jerome, Epistle 22, to Eustochium)

"Such was his love for Holy Scripture that he ceased not from writing or dictating till his hand stiffened in death and his voice was silent forever. So it was that, sparing himself neither labor nor watching nor expense, he continued to extreme old age meditating day and night beside the Crib on the Law of the Lord; of greater profit to the Catholic cause by his life and example in his solitude than if he had passed his life at Rome, the capital of the world."
(Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus ; regarding St. Jerome, 7)

I remember a warm afternoon late one summer, when I emerged from the library. I had loaded up with materials--light comic novels and books-on-tape, DVDs of murder mysteries and children's books--the typical fun 'fluff' entertainment of summertime. Very little was on my mind save squeezing the final dregs of the holiday lull, surrounded by these harmless enjoyments. It was then that I saw the woman who I have come to think of as the Anchoress. At first, I only saw a small car parked near mine, a very rusted and battered vehicle. It had mismatched doors, and was held together with lashings of plastic and duct tape. One of its back doors was propped open, and the grizzled head of a passenger, an old woman, leaned out. She was alone in the car, the rest of her family presumably visiting the library, while she remained behind. She was bent over oddly, very still. I wondered if she was sick in the oppressive heat of the day and needed a breath of air. On the hunched-over figure, I could see faded clothing, and around her the yellow foam of the seat cushions protruding from torn upholstery.


I went toward the car, thinking to offer help, but when I drew near, I saw that the woman was not bent over in illness after all. She was leaning intently over a book, her lips moving silently.

The slanting rays of sunlight falling upon the page disclosed the double-columns of typeface, instantly recognizable as the Scriptures. Deep in thought, she did not look away from her page at my approach.

I stopped where I was and did not disturb the Anchoress. My bag felt suddenly a little heavier in my hands. In a few moments, her family (a middle-aged couple and some teenaged boys) emerged boisterously from the library, their totebags bursting with movies and CDs. There seemed a vast gulf between the raucousness of the family and the silence of the little old woman. At a library, a world of books and entertainments, she was quietly apart. The family climbed into their dilapidated car and drove away. I didn't leave straightaway but sat thinking for a while.

Two, perhaps three years have passed since this event, and I have not seen the old Anchoress again, but I think of her sometimes. I gave her this nickname, because for me in that brief moment, she played the same role that was once played by those who tended to the bells and quiet work of the wayside monastery. She was a reminder of holiness, contemplation, prayerful immersion in the Scriptures. She was the human soul distilled to its most pure practice, that which Our Lord declared "the one thing needful."

In her poverty, one initially might be inclined to pity her. Yet anyone with eyes to see must have apprehended that she possessed something precious, a quality which few of us have managed to attain. Something in her face and her silent devotion spoke of Anthony of Egypt, who once contended with devils in the desert, of Jerome and of Francis, of St. Benedict prostrate before the altar at Monte Cassino: silence; ascesis; and finally, communion.

She managed to make of the sad little jalopy a contemplative's cell, wherein she held converse with the Four Evangelists. Before her were the Lion, the Ox, the Man, and the Eagle, each with his stylus in his hand, while the white flame of the Holy Spirit guided the words across the page.

I wondered how many times she had followed the Savior through the Holy Land in the quiet of her mind, guided by the Four. Did she feel like calling to others, as St. Jerome did to his correspondent Marcella?

"If only you will come, we shall go to see Nazareth, as its name denotes, the flower of Galilee. Not far off Cana will be visible, where the water was turned into wine. We shall make our way to Tabor, and see the tabernacles there which the Saviour shares, not, as Peter once wished, with Moses and Elijah, but with the Father and with the Holy Ghost. Thence we shall come to the Sea of Gennesaret, and when there we shall see the spots where the five thousand were filled with five loaves, and the four thousand with seven. The town of Nain will meet our eyes, at the gate of which the widow's son was raised to life. Hermon too will be visible, and the torrent of Endor, at which Sisera was vanquished. Our eyes will look also on Capernaum, the scene of so many of our Lord's signs— yes, and on all Galilee besides.

And when, accompanied by Christ, we shall have made our way back to our cave through Shiloh and Bethel, and those other places where churches are set up like standards to commemorate the Lord's victories, then we shall sing heartily, we shall weep copiously, we shall pray unceasingly. Wounded with the Saviour's shaft, we shall say one to another: I have found Him whom my soul loves; I will hold Him and will not let Him go." (St. Jerome, Epistle 46, to Marcella)

I thought then of all the classes I have been fortunate enough to take, which gave me a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and of theology. I thought of my work for the Church, which continuously provides opportunity to consider and speak about the mysteries of the Faith. I thought of the books I have read and the ever-expanding cache of websites I use for research.

Even that which I too often take for granted--to have simply been brought up in the true Church--was bourne in upon me.

I had a feeling that the old Anchoress has had none of this, but it seemed the lack was no true obstacle to the heart that loves. She, I think, may have bypassed it all, cutting straight to the heart of things, or as near to it as possible. Now, in the winter of her life, there she chooses to remain.

I wished for her the fullness of the Sacraments, the consoling knowledge of the saints as her brethren, and--in a better era--the cultural structures which reverence, support, and uphold those who like her desire a life of contemplation.

But for myself, I wished for the single-mindedness of her devotion, undistracted, uninterrupted: indeed, the better part.

I have asked myself whether I have over-romanticized the tale of the old Anchoress, for after all, I will never know whether her circumstances were different from those I inferred. In any event, this encounter was an instance of actual grace, and held a truth about the mystery of God's Word, a solution to life's noise so simple as to be habitually overlooked.

I have quoted before the words of Paul Claudel: "Face to face with our Maker . . .This is what we need above all; we need prayer more urgently than bread." Teresa of Avila too urged her readers in The Interior Castle: "Let us desire and be occupied in prayer, not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have the strength to serve."

It can be difficult to carry out these exhortations. Continuously, we may find the distractions of life beginning to eat away at this spirit of prayer and silence, multiplying like microscopic creatures in a dish, until they have a life of their own. We must often be busy with good and necessary things: the tasks of our vocations for example, or the works of charity which we offer to others. There is a constant challenge to keep fulfill such responsibilities while preserving and respecting the call to contemplation. Even our recreations, though they surely can be a means of living out the joy of Christian life, may sometimes grow too clamorous for our time and attentions.

These actions must be bound to prayerful study and meditation. Once this thread is cut, a danger arises in that our actions quickly become devoid of meaning. We come to a lack of strength for service, as Teresa warned; a furor of external busyness masking a hollowness within, a dull void where our treasure ought to be. It follows that even our external works will then become less perfect, less fruitful.

St. Jerome advised of the same peril, as Pope Benedict XV explained in his 1920 encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus:

"From the Bible's pages we learn spiritual perfection. Meditating as he did day and night on the Law of the Lord and on His Scriptures, Jerome himself found there the Bread that cometh down from heaven," the manna containing all delights. And we certainly cannot do without that bread. How can a cleric teach others the way of salvation if through neglect of meditation on God's word he fails to teach himself?

What confidence can he have that, when ministering to others, he is really "a leader of the blind, a light to them that are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law," if he is unwilling to study the said Law and thus shuts the door on any divine illumination on it? Alas! many of God's ministers, through never looking at their Bible, perish themselves and allow many others to perish also. "The children have asked for bread, and there was none to break it unto them" (Lam. 4:4); and "With desolation is all the land made desolate, for there is none than meditateth in the heart" (Jer. 12:11)." [#47]

Today I am grateful to the old Anchoress for rendering me the service of her example. In our work this week, let us ask Our Lord for a spirit of silence, ascesis, and communion, that we might meet Him in the Scriptures and from that font draw the strength to live in His service: ". . . Then we shall sing heartily, we shall weep copiously, we shall pray unceasingly. Wounded with the Saviour's shaft, we shall say one to another: I have found Him whom my soul loves; I will hold Him and will not let Him go."

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