Not Richard Rolle

Confession of an Anchoress


Note: An anchoress (male, anchorite) is a person who has chosen, for spiritual purposes, to be enclosed in a small room adjacent to a church (an anchorhold), with no exit to the outside world.

They often have a small window, to counsel through or to receive communion, and another small passage for receiving food and getting rid of waste. They are not necessarily hermits; though their access to the outside world is limited, they may choose to accept visitors at their small window, usually for counseling or prayer.

During the middle ages, hundreds of women, and some men, chose to enter an anchorhold with the intention of spending the remainder of their lives “enclosed.”

The ancient woman sat propped on her straw tick bed, with a bundle of rags for a pillow; the young wide-eyed priest sat uncomfortably next to her on a milking stool, his knees drawn up almost to his chin. He had been summoned in the middle of the night, and he had arrived before dawn, bag in hand, ready to work. The woman appreciated his efforts, and told him so. It could be difficult to roust a priest out of his comfortable parish bed. Although the young man was perfectly fine in every way–his manner, his voice, his scent–the woman found herself unwilling to say the simple words that preface the confession of sins, and those rites that follow.

The young priest examined his surroundings during the first uncomfortable silences: dirt floor; high window; crumbling gray sandstone walls–sweating, mineral-rich and metallic-smelling. He was a little shocked by this damp mess of lichen-covered cottages, divided into tiny cells around a bare courtyard. He understood personal poverty all too well, but he was not accustomed to seeing it associated with the Church. He felt the pressure of the unhealthy air in his lungs, and in a different circumstance would have bolted. But this was Margaret Kyrkby, and he was improperly excited to hear her confession. He didn’t know if the cold beads on his forehead and upper lip were nervous sweat or an unhealthy film of dust and dew.

“You know I was summoned to perform the rites?” he finally said quietly, after initial whispered niceties had run out.

“There is time.”

In truth, the old woman had lost any desire for forgiveness. If anything were so very sinful that she had not made sufficient atonement by this point, she imagined that she would simply go to hell and fashion her peace from the infinite intensity of the Devil’s pain. She needed no confession, nor absolution. She had not been the one to summon him.

But then, she was glad for the company.

Margaret Kyrkby. Margaret Of The Church. That couldn’t possibly be the anchoress’s name. Almost 40 years more dead than alive, he thought. What did it feel like when the last stone was placed, and she was built into the church, with no escape? What was she thinking when the Bishop read the burial rights for her, still alive, walled off in her anchorhold? What did the organ sound like through the limestone? Could she hear it through the deep, ancient wall? Or only feel the rumbling in her hands pressed against the rock? Did she forget what color was, surrounded by all that gray?

Did she wonder, during plague times, if she would be left to die of thirst while her caretakers shuttered themselves or fled? The young man shivered.

But of course she was in no danger. These were Margaret’s townsmen, and to a person they were spared The Pestilence, even at its most fearsome. Other towns panicked, rioted, and starved. Other towns broke quarantine, and succumbed. Other towns burned witches, the suspected instigators of the great plague of blackened blood. But not Margaret’s town. She was like an amulet or a charm, or a fetish. “‘Twas Margaret saved us,” the priest had heard his old auntie say a hundred times. “‘Twas our ‘Gretta. Her cell could not contain her during the Great Mortality, and she came out to save us all,” for it was said her body was miraculously incarnated outside her cell at night, and she could be seen walking on her knees, encircling the town and countryside in supplication. She sang prayers of deliverance in languages she did not know, with Michael guarding her as she prostrated herself in the square and on the highway and in the fields, calling upon the Lord to spare the town. The young priest’s aunt, until her death, had kept in an apron pocket a piece of bloodied gravel from Margaret’s knees, found upon the church step one morning in the summer of 1349. She would pull it out and proudly tell the story, when times were hard or she’d had a bit too much ale.

He was not sure he believed all of this. Nevertheless, he kept this same piece of gravel in his cloak pocket most days. Though not this one, he’d realized with a pang. Stumbling in the dark and in his haste to come, he must have left it on his dressing table. For a moment he felt naked, and he flushed. He crossed his arms and legs unconsciously, pretzeling his gawky limbs as he teetered on the milking stool.

The young priest gave in to the human urge to fill silence with speech. “Did you miss… talking to people?”

The question was so common, so unimaginative, so juvenile, that the old woman almost rolled her eyes. He is mostly a child, she reminded herself.

“But I talked to people all the time.” Her voice was small and a little contemptuous at first. Could he even be twenty years of age, she wondered? “I have had far less company here in this cell.” She had been pronounced dead to the world, yes–but the dead can not be separated from the world any more than the living.

“But you were… Enclosed.”

Enclosed. Entombed. Interred.

“I was… within,” she said, pausing. “And they were without. But I was not apart.” She smiled to herself. “Apart. A Part.” She sighed and closed her eyes, but kept whispering. “Many came to my small window. And yes, it was very small. But they did not come just to gawk. Girls and women mostly. A woman’s life is lonely.” She wondered to herself how many conversations of any import she would have had as a modestly wealthy country wife. Precious few, from what many a country wife had told her.

“I counseled. I consoled. So, no, I did not miss conversation,” she said, eyes closed and a slight smile still on her face.

“I talked to God. I talked to Richard, when he lived.”

She opened her eyes. Their eyes met. She closed hers again.

“And after, too.” She talked to him in her dreams, and he answered her. “I read… I wrote.”

She was still for a while, smiling, eyes still closed.

“Together Richard and I translated the Psalms and put them to music. I spent many hours reading the scores… and hearing them, too, as real as real… I had them all those years, all those years…  and now I can not find them. All that time and prayer we spent, gone. And now, I will be gone, too.”

“Are you ready for…” he reached for his bag. He had almost forgotten.

“There is time.” She waved him off with a flick of her hand.

Perhaps this is what the Abbess who greeted him in the courtyard meant when she said, going over his acne-pocked face and unsubstantial figure with some disdain, “Do please remember what you are here for.”

A growing darkness in the room suggested clouds. “I love the smell of rain,” the old woman whispered.

Rivulets of moisture trickled down the walls and coalesced into a stream along one wall, which filtered down through a rodent hole in the corner. He wiped his damp lip and brow with his sleeve, and closed his eyes. He lacked sleep. In half-dream he wondered, what was it like to see the same view from the same small window, for decades? Could she see the sun rise? If so, did she regret 40 years without a sunset?

Some silent time later she began to struggle. She had slipped down, and her chin rested against her collarbone; she was suffocating. The priest opened the cell door and stepped out, looking for help, but he was alone, and so he returned to her. With trepidation, he lifted her head and neck and cradled them in his elbow as one would a baby. He made her drink from a rude cup by her side, then lowered her and adjusted her tiny frame upon the bundled rags. She seemed to have no volume or mass. Was she already a ghost? Had he missed the transformation?

“I did miss simple human touch,” she said, blinking, her cataract-pale eyes attempting to focus on something far away. “Rather, I missed anticipating touch. When Richard died, I thought I would go mad…”

She looked up at the pale young face and felt the weight of the celibate years ahead of him.

“But one becomes accustomed,” she added, a kindly untruth. She did not want to discourage or corrupt the boy. It was his discernment, not hers.

Her skin was smooth, as one would expect, as she had been little exposed to sun or wind. Her age showed not in wrinkles, but in the opacity of her skin and the blue veins running beneath. Her hands were balled into loose fists that held a threadbare cover up to her pointed chin, where a deep vein fluttered. Age had ultimately been unkind to her sharp features, but at one time she must have been beautiful.

Those rumors. Was it true that she would nightly sing with the Angels? And that Raphael and Michael traded watches over her? That celestial music could be heard from above her cell on the coldest winter nights? That mysterious lights flitted about the anchorhold when the dew fell–the rainbow wings of cherubim, comforting her in her childlessness?

Listening to the faint trickle of rain, he felt himself drift.

He sees her as a child, white dress, kneeling in church, hands clasped, eyes raised to the heavens. Then she is a young woman, prostrate on a swept dirt floor, her face resting on an open book, papers surrounding her, a pen in hand. Next, as a handsome older woman, sitting by that deep, tiny window. He hears female voices, first serious, then laughing; he starts to say something, and she turns to him, holding her index finger to her lips.

Then in his mind she is young again, well-dressed, a beauty and of at least some means. She is seated on a bench under a simple lean-to in the woods; a barefoot ascetic clothed in rags sits next to her. It is raining. The rain drums on the plank roof, breaking through, dripping. In the vision, the pair is wet and shimmering; looking on, present and not, the young priest remains dry.

The famed ascetic, Richard Rolle, whose bare cabin this is, holds papers in both hands and moves his arms and hands excitedly, sending the damp papers flopping and fluttering like struggling doves. He crosses his bare reedy legs and leans in to show her something. Their temples almost touch. They are making plans. They look like forbidden lovers plotting their escape. In the vision, the young priest steps under the awning and looks, too. He is close enough to hear. He moves in another step or two, eavesdropping, missing a word here and there in the din of the rain but still understanding. He can smell the rain. He can smell her hair.

The two not-lovers share sketches of a church with a small room tucked next to it. One tiny, deep window faces east.

“I will be without, and you will be within, and together…” The ascetic’s voice trails off.

“Yes, together!” Her voice waits, but he does not speak to this. “And yet not,” she adds.

“And yet together in ecstasy,” he responds, hearing her hesitation.

“Yes. Together in ecstasy.” She enjoys the sound of that word, ecstasy.

“Think of the souls we will save through our combined devotions!”

“I thrill at the prospect!” She clasps her hands together. “Lives saved first in life, our entreaties for protection from the coming plague being answered by The Father.”

“Then in the next life. For who will not believe in God when all are spared?”

The rain has slackened, but big slow drops continue to roll through the planks. She laughs as one catches her on the bridge of her nose, causing her eyes twitch and squint. The accumulated moisture rolls to the tip of her nose. It hangs like some strange jewel. Richard touches her nose with his forefinger, smiling, then smooths the damp hair from her forehead with a gentle hand. The hand then moves to hold her cheek, and then to her chin. He tilts her face so their eyes meet, and they lean in until their foreheads rest on each other’s.

The young Margaret turns to look at the priest. Her face makes it clear he is intruding.

“I would like some water.”

He had fallen asleep sitting straight up, and her soft, scratchy words woke him with a jerk that almost toppled him.

Again he lifted her head and offered the small cup, but she could not swallow, and she could not cough. She looked into his eyes without fear as she suffered tiny gags and gasps that seemed to never end. In desperation, he reached around her shoulders and rolled her towards him. He patted her back, and at last she ceased to choke. He held her there on her side for several minutes, his hand resting between her shoulder blades. Finally he eased her on her back again. He looked down to see blood on his tunic. Her lips were parched and bleeding. He dipped two fingers into the water, and carefully wet her lips.

She slept again, again with a slight smile, leaving him to wonder what she was dreaming.

Was it true about her fits, when she was first entombed? That she was wracked first by pain and then by tremors, while pleading for mercy from unseen devils? That only Richard–reaching through the tiny window to hold her face in his hand and stroke her hair–could console her? That when he died, she never had a fit again? These things, the priest would like to ask.

In fevered sleep the old woman was transported by the music of memory, soul aloft on familiar gravities of stars and angel’s voices, verse and chorus and song and Psalm, melody and chord flowing and burbling like a stream through four decades of entombment. She prayed, then fell from prayer into memory of those first days when they were planning her enclosure. How excited they had been!

She opened her eyes and looked intently at the young priest. His eyes were closed, but he sat straight and seemed to nod to her. She herself was neither awake nor asleep. She tried to speak. Could he hear her? He seemed to nod again.

“We considered everything quite carefully,” she thought she whispered. “Every detail was designed to help me live Richard’s philosophy of the mystical chords. We were to flood the world with compassion and Psalms and ethereal chords which the heavens themselves would cast among the stars. Sometimes I believed the stories that came back to me–of angels flitting about my cell and mysterious lights and music, of my translucent figure at prayer in nighttime fields and forests. There were times I felt near to the ecstasy of success. I read Richard’s pages one thousand thousand times, each time finding a nuance, another alliteration or rhyme, that brought me that much closer to the day he would return…” She thought she told this to the young priest.

The priest listened to the whispering dripping rain as visions of song colors streamed among imagined stars. He awoke in the middle of a prayer to see her parched, blue lips trembling.

It would not be long.

She had to tell him the rest of the story. She woke herself from what she thought was already wakefulness to see the young priest’s face staring frankly down at her. “You see,” she said softly, “most of my old friends were dead. My eyes… I could no longer read. My hands could not grasp a quill. My body was more cell than cell.”

“You don’t need to explain.”

“Wild children from the village had begun to pound at my shuttered window and taunt me in the night then run away, laughing. Richard promised in my dreams to return and we would exit the church together… Gabriel would reveal our work…”

Here she stopped abruptly. For a while, she smiled softly to herself. Then the corners of her mouth turned down, and she whispered: “Dreams lie. I had failed. I petitioned the Bishop for release, but he was slow to answer. One morning I begged and screamed until Elizabeth agreed to pull me out through the chamber-pot door.”

Her lips were bleeding again.

He dipped two fingers in the water, and wet her lips. He felt her dry tongue touch the tips of his fingers. He dipped his fingers again, and let her suck.

The old woman, eyes still closed, reached out to him with a tiny, steady hand, smooth and blue and white like porcelain. “Thank you,” she said. He took the hand, which squeezed his own with surprising force. “Thank you for coming, Richard. I knew you would.”

It was a long time before her grip loosened enough for him to gently place her hand upon her blanket-covered chest, where he held it until she no longer breathed.

This was the first time he had ever watched someone die.

He had forgotten the rites.

He had sent her on alone.

~ Greta Ode ~