The better part
Solitary confinement is the most severe punishment that this country’s penitentiary system can inflict. To be alone is not a good thing. However in Medieval times to be alone was not necessarily a punishment, but a great privilege. The medieval anchorites, that lived in the cell beside the chancel of all Saints' Church, known as the anchorhold, gave up their liberty to live alone and devote their lives to prayer. However they would not have thought themselves alone, as they were so close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament reserved at the altar. The greatest privilege was being able to observe through the aperture the moment when Christ became present in the Mass; to see the priest’s actions and hear his words, while the rest of the people looked on from a distance away behind the rood screen.
The author of The Ancrene Rewle, a rule of life drawn up for three anchorites, compared the good, prayerful anchorite to a bird of heaven that flies high, sitting and singing in happiness on the green boughs, close to God. Like Mary of Bethany the anchorites chose what Jesus calls the better part. Mary sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him. She took full advantage of the wonderful opportunity presented to her, to sit and listen to the Word of God incarnate, present in her own home.
Few are called to such an extreme outworking of devotion as that of the anchorites. While some of us might aspire to be like Mary and envy her sitting at the Master’s feet, others of us, might feel more sympathy for Martha. As St Teresa of Avila said, it was all very well Jesus praising Mary, but without Martha, he’d have had no dinner on the table.
Jesus does not criticize Martha for her worldliness, but for the fact that she is distracted by her domestic obligations, she is pulled this way and that by them. She was no doubt so anxious at having so great a guest, that she neglected to hear him speak. Furthermore she wanted to distract Mary away from Jesus in order to assist her.
In Martha and Mary, we see two aspects of Christian life, the active and the contemplative. The Martha side is the one given to practical work around the church: cooking, cleaning, washing up, helping those in need and visiting. The Mary side is the one that spends time in prayer, in silence, meditating on God’s word. Though we may be more inclined to one side than the other, we need to combine both in our Christian lives.
The writer of The Ancrene Rewle acknowledges that though the anchorite is a high-flying spiritual bird, it must come down to the ground ‘to eat, drink, sleep, work, talk and hear about the earthly affairs in so far as they concern her.’
Some might think that the contemplative Mary side is just for anchorites, monks and nuns, but it is not. For we can all be silent. We can all be still, shut up, and just breathe, if only for a few minutes. If we are quiet and still the Lord can speak to us, through the Holy Spirit. As the Ancrene rewle says , the anchorite should emulate Mary of Bethany and seek quietness and exemption from all the disturbances of the world, so that nothing may prevent her from hearing God’s voice.
In this church we give the opportunity for half an hour of silence on a Wednesday evening. After Evening prayer and before Mass begins, there are 30 minutes when we just sit in the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This is a great privilege, which few take advantage of. As Catholic Christians we believe that Jesus is present here in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle on the high altar. Why would we not want to spend time with so gracious a host?
The anchorhold was built where it was so that the anchorite could spend her time gazing on the sacrament, contemplating Jesus, who is, as St Paul says, 'the message which was a mystery hidden for generations and centuries and now revealed to his saints'.
When she was asked to choose her Desert Island Discs, Theresa May, as well as choosing Frankie Vali’s Walk Like a Man and Abba’s Dancing Queen, selected When I survey the Wondrous cross, and the Tantum Ergo, which we sing here on Wednesday evenings as the half hour of silence is crowned by Benediction. She chose this because she recalled that as a girl when alone with her parents in church, they would honour Christ’s presence in the blessed sacrament, by reciting the Tantum Ergo. 'Therefore we before him bending, this great sacrament revere, types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here. Faith our outward sense befriending makes the inward vision clear.'
'My faith is part of me', she said, 'part of who I am, how I approach things, it helps frames my thinking and approach.'
Amid all the distractions of everyday life, and the insecurity and horror around the world, we must stay close to Jesus and be attentive to his word.