confinement

Excavating to the depths of the psyche is an absolute necessity. It can be done by welcoming the Wild One into one’s practice; by sleeping and dreaming, by immersing oneself in faery, by dancing and by making Art in a totally unusual way that feels 100% authentic. It is a place where we can let go, nourish ourselves, step out of the cycles that bind us in unhealthy ways.

I recently finished reading a book called Illuminations by Mary Sharratt. It was about the life of Hildegard von Bingen, a German Mystic who was enclosed as an anchorite in a cell at the monastery of Disibodenberg in Germany in the twelfth century. She was literally walled up in to a room with another, older women – her ‘magistra’ and keeper – at the age of eight. She was ‘released’ around the age of thirty.

I have also been writing about anchorites and the life of confinement. I am fascinated by this life – although Hildegard was tithed to the church by her parents, some other women in Europe offered themselves freely to the church and were walled up until the day they died. I have been thinking about the psychic and physical result of being contained like this and wondering what effect that sense of safety (and restriction) would have on one’s artistic life and how could one willingly want it?

It reminded me of the story of Bluebeard and his wife who is contained in his huge mansion whilst he leaves on a business trip. Fortunately for her, she has many, many rooms to explore and discover and each one of them holds incredible treasures and is chock full with wonderful things. This keeps her very busy for a while. But of course there is the tiny key that Bluebeard expresses adamantly she must not use. This key is the start of her initiation; something she must go through in order to achieve fulfilment in her life, otherwise she must stay confined in that castle for eternity, being a good girl, doing nothing wrong, not succumbing to temptation. We could see that kind of life as one of purgatory but it also could signify a huge opportunity to explore the inner realms. 

It is interesting that anchorites were walled up in order that they be ‘good’ in the eyes of God, i.e. hidden away from temptation. They were committed into a life of prayer and contemplation, which afforded them the most amazing opportunities to go deeper within themselves, to explore the wondrous rooms of the castle, searching for the lock for the tiny key. No wonder that many of them were blessed with healing powers or became great artists and writers. Hildegard herself never had the opportunity of exploring a single physical room other than the one she lived in exclusively whilst she was walled up in her anchorage and I feel that this, although seen by many as horrific, must have been strangely, an advantage. She was compelled to explore her own inner rooms and the otherworld of her deep psyche through prayer and then ultimately, through creative practice. She was prolific in her working life, producing major illuminated texts, which were copied and distributed widely all over Europe. She was also a healer and scientist and wrote a canon of canticles and songs for the church, amongst other things.

I think I am coming to understand how containment can be a blessing for some people. Sometimes I yearn for all the distractions of real life to fade away so that I can traverse my inner world with my tiny key searching for the lock that it fits. Sometimes, when it feels like I am on a sacred quest, I understand how hermits and monks can successfully hide themselves away from the world in order to live a fully spiritual life in close communion with God. Confinement feels like sanctuary and deep artistic practice resembles a communion. 

I think as artists, we know instinctively when we must spend time in this inner world, free from the distractions that everyday life brings; we know when to contain ourselves and make a practice of searching through our rooms of wonders in order to find the final cellar that we have been expressly told not to enter; the Cave of Bones; the Dark Night of the Soul. Sometimes we are compelled to do it, other times we have that compulsion forced upon us but ultimately, it is incredibly enriching and nourishing.

This place is where we start to make sense of our vocation and break away from ‘true’ confinement – the cycles that bind us – to start working from an authentic place where we are more able to welcome the Wild One home, just like Hildegard von Bingen and Bluebeard’s wife did.