Anchorite

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An anchorite (pronounced ANG-kuh-right) is someone who lives in self-imposed physical isolation for religious reasons. As opposed to a hermit, who generally seeks isolation from society in a remote location, an anchorite isolates him- or herself physically in a populated area, and denies his- or herself the freedom of movement. Typically, an anchorite would be walled up in a small room, a cell or anchorhold, attached to the outside of an existing church building. A small opening in the outer wall of the cell would allow for food and waste to be passed in and out, and an opening in the inner wall (called a hagioscope or squint) would allow the anchorite to observe the Mass and receive Communion. Some anchorites would allow themselves freedom of movement inside the church as well, but would not leave the church building. The anchorite was therefore dependent on the larger community to provide them with food, clothing, and other necessities. While physically isolated, anchorites would typically still interact with people outside the cell. The anchorite might take requests for prayers, or offer advice or comfort to outsiders. Some anchorites became the equivalent of tourist attractions, drawing distant visitors eager to hear their words of wisdom.

The anchorite's time would be spent in personal prayer and intercessory prayer, devotional reading, doing what acts of charity they could (such as mending the clothes of the poor or copying religious manuscripts), and in some cases on consultation with ecclesiastical authorities. The goal of the anchorite's separation from the world was to remove as many temptations to sin as possible. For female anchorites in particular, the physical barrier of bars or a walled-up doorway served as the visible evidence of their sexual purity.

The tradition of anchorites extends from the third century A.D. through the late Middle Ages. The tradition extended throughout Europe, but was particularly popular in England. Historically, there were more female anchorites than male anchorites. The tradition ended in England in the 1500s when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries there. Although very rare, there are still anchorites in the 21st century.

The term "anchorite" comes from the Greek word anachōrētēs, meaning one who withdraws or leaves a place (as from a battle). This sounds similar to the Greek ánkura, meaning 'hook or anchor'. In English the two terms blended, and the anchorite came to be referred to as the anchor, being physically anchored in place and serving as a spiritual anchor to the church where they lived as well as having withdrawn from the world.

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