Monks and Nuns in the Temple

Here is a detail which fits with the Feast of Candlemass today and with my weekly theme of monasticism. I don’t now know where I first came across this, and I am happy to be corrected by someone who is more scholarly than I am, (like Taylor Marshall) and who is not sitting in a burger joint in South Carolina that has Wi Fi, but for some reason does not have a full set of the apocryphal writings of the early patristic period…

But it’s this: there is an ancient tradition that Simeon and Anna were like the first century Jewish equivalent of the resident Anchorite and Anchoress in the Temple of Jerusalem. They lived quiet lives of prayer and worship and study. Furthermore, the tradition continues that there were actually orders of what we would recognize as monks and nuns living together in the temple precincts–that they took vows of celibacy and were committed for life and that Simeon and Anna were part of this ancient tradition.

As in medieval Europe these ‘monastic communities’ would take in children who were dedicated to the Lord. They would look after the children, educate them and together these communities would tend the daily needs of the priests and help sustain the temple worship. Hints of this in the Old Testament are the boy Samuel who served with Eli and had the task of keeping the lamps lit.

You may remember the story of Jepthah’s daughter in the Book of Judges. Jepthah went out to battle having made the vow that if he was successful he would offer to God the first thing he saw on returning home. His daughter ran out to meet him and so he offered her. The assumption is that he killed her in an act of human sacrifice. However, the more reasonable solution is that she was offered to the temple community as a consecrated religious–taking a vow of celibacy and serving God much like the boy Samuel. This is suggested because the girl goes off to celebrate with her friends and they mourn together–not because she is going to be killed, but because she will never marry and have children.

Well, if this is true, and Anna was sort of like the Abbess of this little community, then it connects with the early apocryphal traditions in the Protoevangelium of James about the life of the Blessed Virgin that she was a consecrated virgin–belonging to just such a community based in the temple. It was from there that she was betrothed to Joseph by direction of the elders.

It is possible, therefore that Anna and Simeon already knew the Blessed Virgin. Indeed, the Protoevangelium suggests that the elders were involved with the whole process. If this is true, then Anna and Simeon recognized Mary and Joseph when they appeared in the temple, and knew very well (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) what was going on and who they were seeing.

Is all this true? Well, it is ancient tradition. It is speculation based on the apocryphal gospel of James written (scholars suggest) around the year 150 in or around Jerusalem. Could this apocryphal gospel be historical or just a made up fairy tale? If the date is this late it is one hundred or more years from the actual events. Compared to our times, this would be like writing history about the events of the 1860s. That’s the civil war. It’s possible–especially as the Jews took their history seriously.

The point for Candlemass is that Anna and Joseph were not just a couple of old folks who happened to be praying in the temple that day. We’re told that they were led by the Spirit and had the gift of prophecy. This means they understood deeply the way of the Spirit. They could recognize the Christ in the midst of their everyday lives, and they could proclaim him to others.

If this old Anchorite and Anchoress could do so, maybe we should all try to find the inner Anchorite and Anchoress within, and get busy and pray more so we can recognize the Light of the World when he comes.

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