A Table Approaching Lent: Of Desert-ness and Ocean-ness

As was musing on earlier, just still can't help but see Lent more as an ocean than a desert for a more feminine soul (see here too). Recently i was drawn by something else in this vein, the lovely traditional legend of Mary's parents Anna and Joachim. From here:

"(Devastated by their childlessness) Joachim left to the desert to live in prayer day and night and Anne stayed at home, relating her suffering to God. (bolding mine)."

The rest is history of course , for Anna soon gave birth to our own Blessed Mother. And her parents' deep cry had came from two different places there....Joachim from the rigors of the desert, Anna from a softer and more "oceany" place at home. And what a wonderful bridge their complementing made... from the same link:

"When Anne conceived, she ran to the city gates to find Joachim. But in the desert, an angel told Joachim that he was going to become a father and that that child was going to be great among the nations. So, he runs to the city as well, and they meet at the gate."

An image of their traditional icon is above.

And here below is an image of Mary and Jesus...such different ways of being are shown here i feel (feminine and masculine, but both in the deepest and holiest sense) and how incredibly complementing! My fiance and i have been exploring that a lot lately. I am more a contemplative, and a more oceany one at that, and i have this fantasy deep down sometimes of us living this kind of secluded contemplative life together, kind of like the Beguines (who lived in contemplative communities and could be married). And while he loves to come home to this sort of thing, and while he is naturally deeply prayerful in general as well, things needs to be a bit more adventurous and active for him (wonderful qualities to have in your hero, smile) and he is also of all things a seaman. Though of course this image below goes far beyond our own human lives to something far greater, it has still really inspired us to understand how we don’t need to the "same" here, that we can still complement beautifully in our difference, like below.

This desert/ocean difference is important i feel, because what Lent is during the year is what St Benedict (among others) believed a contemplative was to live all year, that same spirit of things. And this desertness and oceanness, they are two paths to this prayerful life (beautifully complementary, a wonderful polarity in the world of prayer), and yet most of us sadly assume we simply "should" all take the desert path. But there are two paths, i feel. Two. Desert, but also ocean. This was reflected in the Middle Ages too, with the dual traditions of the hermit and the anchoress (this pdf gives a good history). The hermits life (and this drew more men than women) was prayerful and its prayerfulness was born of spartanness and aescetism with a real focus on physical labor and self reliance (even in the begging tradition there is that independent feeling so strongly there with a hermit). And you never really get the sense a hermit lives a home centered life, he tends to feel detached from his dwelling, like he could leave it at any moment no problem no regret, like a sense of "home" doesn’t really matter so much. This poem by Lew Welch struck me as the spirit of the hermit:

The image, as in a Hexagram:

The hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
He keeps the cabin warm.
All winter long he sorts out all he has.
What was well started shall be finished.
What was not, should be thrown away.

In spring he emerges with one garment
and a single book.

The cabin is very clean.

Except for that, you'd never guess
anyone lived there.

The earlier part of the poem applies to both a desert and an ocean way of being i feel, that mutual simplicity...but the end i feel is what really sets the desert path apart. "you'd never guess anyone lived there ". There was no real bonding felt there to me, no "home-ness" feeling really. The desert after all is about letting things be sapped dry to their essence...and so one might feel well what is this body, what is this home, etc, they aren’t important really...the image is more the phoenix rising out of the charring flame, coming out from this fire of death as independent and strong. But some of us are meant for a more "oceany" "path there. The ocean too offers rebirth but in a different way, with the moistness of nurturing new life, the ocean is earth's "womb" in a sense (talk about a feeling of home-ness). I really do think it is more suited for a more feminine soul, for a nurturer needs to come from a softer more nurturing place.

And so back to the dual traditions of hermit and anchoress: the anchoress's life (and this drew more women than men) was also prayerful but its prayerfulness was born more of a softness. More "oceany" i feel. And there WAS a real sense of home-ness there. There was a focus on the environment being conducive to prayer and meditation more through simple beauty and comfort than through spartanness. An anchoress typically had a cat, and a maidservant, and was encouraged not too be overly aestetic in her practices (no hair shirts etc were usually allowed/encouraged, whereas many hermits wore these) and also to eat simple but nurturing food (not indulgenge but not spartanness either, in contrast with the hermit who was typically quite spartan). The anchoress lived in a prayerful but comfortable hermitage attached to the church (the anchoress and maidservant being in seperate adjoining rooms in the anchorage). There was usually an attached garden she could go out into. And she was not allowed to "work for a living" as hermits did, but rather she was to spend her time in a more intensely contemplative prayer.

I love even the name there...anchorage. I reminds me of one how one of the titles of Christ is "anchor in the ocean". An oceany life so utterly needs such a true anchor, that deep homeness, that rock. A deserty life perhaps needs more that open clear dry desert sky as the focus, that release of the pheonix from the flames.

An even more amazing (to me anyway) option for women in the Middle Ages (a path which should still be as common nowadays i feel) is the path of vowess or “Holy Widow”. She in essence lived like an anchoress, and was similarly prayerful and similarly protected by the church..... but her anchorage was often her own home. And this tradition is SOOO incredibly rich! From here :

Hermits were generally male72, anchorites were of either sex and there was a third institution that, by definition, was female. That was the ancient (dating from apostolic times) ‘order’ of vowess or holy widow73 that in some respects was not dissimilar to the other kinds of recluse... By renouncing a second marriage the woman, to a large extent, withdrew from the major and material preoccupations of her class74 (and)...improved her spiritual status by giving up sexual intercourse and in contemporary thought consequently occupied a place between the virgins and the faithful married women75. Like the hermit and anchoress she achieved a kind of independence in the service of God but, unlike them, remained free to live in the world, make a will and dispose of her personal property.

It was far from unknown for a woman of the upper class (actually there were women here from all classes, as the article discusses down the line if you open the pdf) , having lost her husband, to take a vow not to marry again and consequently to withdraw from society and the usual activities of her peers. Instead, for the rest of her life, she would concentrate her activities on prayer and good works76. She might withdraw to a convent, not necessarily as a professed nun but rather as a paying guest77 who took some part in the religious life of the nunnery. There is even evidence that a widow, whether formally vowed to that state or not, might take up residence within the precincts of a male priory78. This seems to be the situation of Eleanor Wandesford of Kirtlington who drew up her will in the parlour of the Dominican priory at York in 1472.79 Jane, widow of Sir Richard Strangeways, who made her will in 1500 while residing in this friary, desired to be buried “in the choir of the same friars under thelectern where they read their legend”.80

Between 1370 and 1470 widows in the diocese of York were regularly professed as vowesses and some were attached to Yorkshire nunneries, especially Clementhorpe, where they lived lives of contemplation and seclusion. Widows taking the veil as vowesses at Clementhorpe in the fifteenth century included Joan Scargill81, Margaret Norton, Elizabeth de la River and Isabella Bruce82. Perhaps more frequently such widows lived a quiet life in their own homes, sometimes moving to the neighbourhood of a religious house. A probable example is Elizabeth Chaworth, the widow of John Lord Scrope, who became a vowess in 1455 but whose place of retirement is not known83.

The ‘separated’ status of such widows began with a formal appearance before her diocesan bishop or his representative. Then, in the course of a service84 that was conducted immediately before a solemn mass, the applicant was inducted into the formal religious state of widowhood. The ceremony was not dissimilar to that which commissioned hermits and sometimes was a shortened form of the latter .... The widow presented herself before the prelate and took a solemn vow of chastity, swearing to remain “a widow indeed” for the rest of her life. Then the officiating bishop, after receiving her verbal and written promise, gave her his benediction and invested her with a veil and a mantle, a vesture akin to a religious habit85 that signified the status and profession of a vowess. He also put a ring on her finger, symbolising - so to speak - that her ‘second husband’ was Christ.”

WOW! This is the stuff that moves me so much, the stuff we have lost (but can surely reclaim).
One note too is that a woman didnt even need to be a widow to a vowess. From the same pdf:

"We should also notice that the profession of “vowess” was not necessarily confined to widows. Eleanor Roos, a daughter of Sir Thomas Roos of Igmanthorpe, died an old maid and was buried at Mount Grace where she had probably lived a life of seclusion. In her will of 1438 she left to her nephew, Robert Roos, an English version of Bonaventura’s Passion of Our Lord..."

In another vein there is also the "consecrated virgin" tradition. In modern times a famous example there is Sister Wendy Beckett, the lovely contemplative who did the BBC art series that went to such a deep place. She is not a nun, but rather simply under the protection of the Carmelite order. She lives separately, eats separately, though she joins them in morning prayer. Consecrated virgins are rare today though, along with holy widows and vowesses.

The thing is, there used to be SO much more open to women who were meant for a more oceanic contemplative path....and frankly i suspect many women are meant for a more "oceany" spirituality if they had a choice, its just more feminine feeling. That is why some (myself included) see parts of the Middle Ages as a truly precious flowering period for feminine spirituality, i feel anyway...and i think its because of sensing deep down that these more oceany prayer lives were so important to women, and so missing today. And of course right alongside that there was a heroicness idealized in the men as chivalry (though that's older too, i just LOVE this article on seeing St Joseph as such an incredible "knight" (here). And there is more in the Middle Ages that draws me too, blessings for both men and women. Though from a horribly anti-Catholic perspective in some ways which i certainly wouldnt stand behind, i am still drawn to parts of this article on the Middle Ages. From it:

"Christian medievalism...presents us with a view of a whole life, full of truth, beauty, goodness and all their nasty contraries. The medieval period is the closest thing we have to a maturing Christian culture. It was a culture unashamed of Christ and one sharply at odds with the values of modernity. Where else can Christians look for a vision of normal life, of Christianity enfleshed? Do we look to the 1950's? Life on the American prairie? To Jefferson's reign? Modernism had already gutted Christian culture long before any of these... (Looking at living more "medivally" is) an attempt to continue that Christian discussion of truth, beauty, and goodness that was cut so short. The medieval period isn't the culmination of Christian culture, but it was headed in the right direction. It was telling a wonderful story and headed for great things, triumphing with beauty over its enemies. But it never got to complete the story. And now it's time for Christians to start thinking about plotting more of that story, time to prepare for the death of modernity over the next century. It's time to renew our devotion to Christian truth, beauty, and goodness--the good life. But in order to continue that discussion, we need to search out how our medieval forefathers were progressing before they were silenced. We need to scoff at modernity as a tired idol and examine the many levels of the medieval Christian vision--"ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16).

When we look into the "old paths" of our medieval fathers to find rest for our souls, it is like finding long lost family, family we've been severed from for centuries. We find them to be brothers refreshingly Christian and unaddicted to modern idols. We want to kiss them and ask where they have been for such a long time (rather, where have we been?). They have their foibles and idols, just as we have ours, but we can learn.

When we commune with medieval thinking we learn to see how big a lie the modern project is, and we can start to understand why modernity hates medievalism. It cannot speak about it without going red in the face and spluttering through stiff lips. Modernity's hatred of all things medieval should be reason enough for Christians to want it. After all, if modernity hates medievalism so much, there must be something wonderful there! During C.S. Lewis's slow trek out of modernism, he noticed how one Christian professor "was beginning to overthrow [Lewis's] chronological snobbery. Had something really dropped out of our lives? Was the archaic simply the civilized, and the modern simply the barbaric?" Christendom has lost something beautiful. Barbarism has always been with us, yet Christendom once held forth a life full of truth, beauty, and goodness amidst barbarism....

Why not judge the respective visions (modernity and Medivielism) by their beauty? Which vision tells the better story? Which has poetic grace and rich color?...Pascal honestly explained that "every man is almost always led to believe not through proof, but through that which is attractive"...We can never know enough arguments to be omniscient, but we can judge fruit. And beauty is fruit.

Why are we so confident that beauty isn't a path to truth? More modern lies, I suspect. Scripture tells us that God beautifies a people by salvation (Ps. 149:4) and that holiness itself is beautiful (Ps. 29:2). If beauty points us to salvation and holiness, then beauty points us to truth. Idolatry can never be truly beautiful. Non-Christians will dismiss the challenge, but they have to because modernism is so ugly. The more important judgment needs to be made by modern Christians. Compare medievalism to our baptized modernity. Which is more beautiful? This is a key to truth. Or even to lower the standard: wouldn't it be wonderful if the medieval vision were true? ...

We so often talk of "worldview thinking" and "applying the Bible to every area of life," but that is all too often just a skeleton of a theory. The medievals actually lived it; imperfectly, yes, but still much better than anything in modernity. We have no sense of a life carefully crafted by beauty. A devotion to beauty will sculpt everything we do, and the medievals knew that very well. Beauty trains one's mind to think differently about family, leisure, labor, theology, and the future. Yet we thin-souled moderns are so proud of our rejection of poems and stories and paintings. We lead half-lives and die with less. God has given us so much more, and we slight Him in our meagre living. Christendom has lost so much. Christendom has lost Christendom, and we have traded it away for cold and sterile idols."

Anyway, this sort of thing, for me, is behind a "Medieval draw" that has ever been here. It’s a draw not so much to a place in time but a way of living that was in parts of it. We are born in the time we are in for a reason. But that doesn’t mean our draws to other times are meaningless..i think they are very meaningful, for they show us what is missing. And so today, while a teeny trickle of more oceanic contemplative living has survived, the desert paths are practically all we’ve kept today otherwise (not surprising after things like the dryness of Vatican II etc). But they AREN’T all that there is! I for one have so deeply needed to know this!

With this ocean desert stuff in general though, i suspect really these ways of being DO overlap a great deal, and i don’t want to divide them too strictly, that doesn’t feel right. They WILL overlap, and we should be true to what He lays on our hearts, whatever its form. But i do like to talk about the distinctions there a bit still because its so obvious we are told the desert path is THE contemplative path, its all over the place, even in much of the monastic world, and a one sided view like that is so harmful i feel. Its like the Martha Mary thing....there too i'm sure those ways of being DO overlap, but i find myself often focusing on the distinctness there too simply because the Martha path is presented so much as "the" (rather than "a") path for women, even in much of the Christian world.

But at any rate, be it through desert or ocean, this is definitely such a core time right now, this Lent. Lent is a time of...returning. I love that word used in traditional Judaism, Ballat teshuva, one who has returned. I like to see Lenten living, and prayerful living in general, in the glow of that light. It’s a light that holds as many tears as joy, but it’s the deepest light there is.

To end here i'd like to share part of compline for today, since it was connected on so many levels...

Psalm 142 (143)
A prayer in time of trouble
Lord, I trust you: do not hide your face from me.
Lord, listen to my prayer:
in your faithfulness turn your ear to my pleading;
in your justice, hear me.
Do not judge your servant:
nothing that lives can justify itself before you.

The enemy has hounded my spirit,
he has crushed my life to the ground,
he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.
So my spirit trembles within me,
my heart turns to stone.
I remind myself of the days of old,
I reflect on all your works,
I meditate once more on the work of your hands.
I stretch out my arms to you,
I stretch out my soul, like a land without water.

Come quickly and hear me, O Lord,
for my spirit is weakening.
Do not hide your face from me,
do not let me be like the dead,
who go down to the underworld.
Show me your mercy at daybreak,
because of my trust in you.
Tell me the way I should follow,
for I lift up my soul towards you.
Rescue me from my enemies:
Lord, I flee to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.

Your good spirit will lead me to the land of justice;
for your name’s sake, Lord, you will give me life.
In your righteousness you will lead my soul
away from all tribulation.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Lord, I trust you: do not hide your face from me.


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