Skip to content

A Plumb Line for Our Lives in Solitude by John Backman

…for Our Spiritual Practice.

“Am I doing it right?”
I ask this question a lot, particularly in terms of the solitary life. Maybe it’s because I don’t have an official sanction to be a solitary, or because my life doesn’t look particularly eremitic—I live with my wife in a house in the suburbs. Whatever the cause, I need a plumb line to help me assess my life in solitude.

Every time the question arises, my deepest self draws me to the image of anchorholds. Many people know anchorholds as the type of cell that Julian of Norwich inhabited: typically a small room, built onto the side of a church, with three windows.


Anchoresses (they were mostly women, and most numerous in medieval England) were walled into such a room upon becoming solitaries, committed to a cycle of prayer and contemplation that took up most of their days.

It is those three windows, and the interplay between them, that speak to me.

Take, for instance, the “squint”—a slit or side window that opened onto an altar in the church. Through it, the anchoress could take part in the Church’s rituals directed to God, especially the Catholic Mass.

The squint reminds me of our blessed capacity to connect with, and draw nourishment from, the Divine Source of all things (whatever name you use for that Source). The squint’s size reminds me that a glimpse of the Divine is all we get. The vast Mystery is always utterly beyond us.

The “house window” usually opened onto servants’ quarters. The servant would pass meals through the window to the anchoress; the anchoress would send her chamber pot the other way. So we have a whole window devoted to the most pedestrian details of life: eating and drinking and pooping. The house window reminds me that these too are part and parcel of our lives, not somehow separate or less than. For us suburban solitaries, even cleaning the house and mowing the lawn are part of our call.

Finally, members of the community would come to the “parlor window” to receive counsel and wisdom from the anchoress. I look at this window and see my practice of spiritual direction, the correspondence from seekers in different places, my friends who need a listening ear. Yet curiously the parlor window was to be smaller than the house window—a reminder that service to others, while important, is not everything.

At the center is the room that binds the windows together. In that room is the pulse of the anchoress’s vocation—prayer and study and reflection and especially solitude. The solitude, and the Divine Spirit who moves within it, feed it all. The anchoress brings to each window the wisdom and treasures she has received in her anchorhold.

She also brings what she has experienced at the other windows. So her talk with a distressed parishioner goes with her to the squint, where she presents him to the Divine for mercy. The dailiness of the house window gives her a keen sense of her own humanity, which she uses to stand in solidarity with supplicants at the parlor window.

Many times, when I ask myself whether I’m “doing it right,” I worry that I’ve become too self-absorbed, or out of balance, or unproductive—or even too solitary. The anchorhold reminds me that the spiritual life is a never-ending flow, from the Divine to the daily to others to self to prayer and back again and over and over again. If I look at my life and see the flow, I can take heart that, in Julian’s famous phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Humming Bird

About the Author
John Backman is a spiritual director and author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as
a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths).

John Backman  Author, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths)


ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email