A 20th Century Anchoress
The ever-inspiring blog, Hermitary, drew my attention to: “Wind on the Sand: the Hidden Life of an Anchoress” by Pinions. London: SPCK, 1980; New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
“This modest 80-page book is the autobiography of an Englishwoman who became an anchoress in the Anglican tradition.
Pinions (her pseudonym) worked for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the UK during World War II and afterwards, visiting many countries and seeing may cultures and peoples. During a stint in Algeria, she experienced an insightful moment viewing the Atlas mountains through a haze, a moment when her hatred of God (she had just lost a favorite brother over Germany) melted into a sense of a transcendent God found in nature, and, later, she says, in people and circumstances.
For Pinions was not brought up religious, and her progress was worthily her own. She read the Christian spiritual classics (“Cloud of Unknowing”, John of the Cross, Ruysbroeck) and, returning to England, sought out a spiritual director. After a couple of meeting he surprised her by suggesting she become a nun. Pinions entered a contemplative community but found the minimum of prayer and the maximum of busywork unsuitable, and left the order after five-plus years.
St. Mary’s Abbey (Malling Abbey
“It could be that you have a higher vocation, “a new director suggested, and he trained her to become an anchoress. And it worked. Pinions followed a version of the “Ancrene Wisse” and “Rule of St. Benedict”, and with the approbation of the local bishop moved to a small cottage or hut. Her life of prayer and solitude blossomed.
Pinions offers a clear and unpretentious description of prayer based on her experience, ascending from meditation and “prayer of quiet” to recollection, contemplation, and intercession. She offers examples from her daily life and sufferings, and several of her own prayers. Her daily life records her reluctant departure from the cottage after nearly ten years due to a serious kidney ailment, finally residing in the separate quarters of a benefactor after long and unhappy stays in the hospital.
Later, largely bedridden, came a chance interview in a religious newspaper, followed by a BBC interview. Correspondence came, from a trickle to thousands of letters from around the world. Pinions happily answers each. Correspondents usually seek a bit of counsel, which, she offers in a spirit of joy, kindness, simplicity, and courage. She would never seek to convert anyone, she writes, and sees the oneness of humanity as the key to understanding Christian virtues.
The life of Pinions reflects a friendlier concept of the anchoress than the austere medieval image of enclosure or cloister. Though she kept her temporary vows as a nun and during her hospital stays would reply to enquiries about what she did that she was a nun, Pinions crafted a new lay (female) religious function in the church, sustaining the anchoritic tradition while offering the spiritually-minded solitary a viable model of life adaptable by her own recommendation to anyone so disposed.
The title comes from a glimpse of a whirling sandstorm during the period when she was to experience a kind of epiphany in Algeria. The cover subtitle to the New York edition is “The Story of a 20th Century Anchoress” and contains a foreword by American writer Annie Dillard.”
“The moving personal testimony of the life of the only fully recognised Anchoress in the Church of England: a present day mystic in the spiritual tradition of Mother Julian. Written entirely in “Pinion’s” own words, the book traces her unique coming to God and describes the special qualities of her prayers and meditations, a book for all who seek an example of prayerfulness and for those in pain or distress.”
“Pinions” was Sister Mary Lioba (Beryl Iris Higgs: 1896-1986) who lived as an Anchoress at the (Anglican) Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham (Norfolk, England) from 1959 to 1968.
“A former nun from West Malling [St. Mary’s Abbey (Malling Abbey), an abbey of Anglican Benedictine nuns], she went to Walsingham in 1959 to explore the possibilities of living as a solitary. There she met Bridget Monahan, who subsequently had an anchorage built for her and placed in the then garden of St Anne’s. Sister Mary Lioba took vows on 26 November 1960 and stayed until she was forced to leave because of illness. Bridget took responsibility for her, and the convent sisters looked after her daily needs. When in April 1968 she became too ill to stay in seclusion she went into a London care home so that she could be near her London hospital. After two years she was so unhappy that Bridget took her to live with her in Worcester and generously looked after her for eleven more years. On 1 April 1977 there was a service of thanksgiving in St Faith’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, for the silver jubilee of her first profession at West Malling. Under the pen-name ‘Pinions’ she wrote for the “Church Times” and also under that pen-name published a book called “Wind on the Sand: The Hidden Life of an Anchoress” (1980): this gives a detailed account of her life, including her time at Walsingham.
“From Bridget Monahan’s “Walsingham memoirs”:
‘I was spending Holy Week and Easter in Walsingham in the Fifties, when a former nun from West Malling was staying in the Hospice, Sister Mary Lioba. Her purpose was to explore the possibilities of coming to live the solitary life in Walsingham. So it was that a year later, I ordered a wooden structure, an anchorage, to be made in Stourport and transported and erected in the grounds of St. Anne’s. I was there when the Bishop of Norwich came to install her.
During the war years, she had been serving in the WAAFS and became involved in a plane crash, when she was the sole survivor. Her fiancé was among the dead. [This recollection is not entirely correct: both Sister Mary Lioba and her favourite brother, Bill, were serving in the Air Force in the Second War, and he was reported missing after a night raid on Germany.] This made her feel she had been preserved for something special and wished to spend the rest of her life in solitude, offering all her prayers in reparation. She remained there for 10 years, until ill-health took over.
[Bridget later took her into her own home in Worcester and looked after her for the next eleven years.]”
The New Refectory side of the wall showing the markings of Sister Mary’s hut.
For Walsingham, see further:
For the Anchoresses of Walsingham, see: