Recently Sister Kathleen happened by my office with a quote and a question. The quote was from the 4th century desert hermit Abba Moses: “Go sit in your cell. Your cell will teach you everything.” Her question was: “What is the ‘cell’ of today?” Observing that smartphones, TVs, computers and all sorts of other gadgets that keep us connected to the world outside of the monastery have infiltrated our monastery bedrooms in one way or another, Sister Kathleen offered this question as a blog topic. It is very good question indeed.
Persons not familiar with monasticism initially might think of a prison cell as they read Abba Moses’s words. However, the “cell” in the monastic tradition is a key component of a God-seeker’s spiritual practice. As early as the 3rd century, Christians went to the Egyptian desert to live a life prayer, solitude, and self-denial. These first Christian men and women fled the distractions and temptations of society to pursue a radical way of witnessing to Jesus Christ. A cave or a roughly made hut provided shelter from weather and wild animals. It was a place where one dwelt alone with God as if “dead to the world.” This is the origin of the monastic cell.
Intentionally a monk’s cell contained the barest of essentials for survival. No soft pillows or coordinated décor. The stark simplicity had the purpose of focusing one’s attention on God alone. The cell forms a listening chamber wherein one becomes aware of one’s own thoughts, feelings, desires, and radical need for God. It is the place wherein the voice of God can be heard, intimately whispering messages of love, mercy, and compassion in the depths of one’s heart.
Human beings are inclined to search outside of themselves for anything that promises to fill the emptiness experienced at the core of one’s being. Money, power, social status, food, alcohol, sex, and various creature comforts are the usual temptations. Entertainment in whatever form distracts us from the consciousness of that emptiness or brokenness within ourselves. The monastic cell is a spiritual practice of turning away from all that is not-God so that God might be the one who fills and heals and soothes the wounded soul. The cell will teach you everything.
Today, however, even in monasteries, radios, phones, TVs, computers, tablets, books, magazines, and all sorts of other “stuff” compromise the environment of the modern monastic cell. They bring images, sounds, and information that distract the mind, stir up one’s emotions, and compete for our attention into the very same space where we seek God in silence and solitude. One’s bedroom then becomes less of a cell and more of a place where I store the things that I call “mine.” O God, save us from ourselves!
I confess that my bedroom has as many distractions as my office, so I am not judging anyone else’s living space for sure. But, Sister Kathleen’s question does lead me to reflect more deeply on what my own cell has to teach me. Why do I keep so much more stuff than I really need? How can I pare down some of the visual distractions in my prayer space? How am I letting the bombardment of images, sounds, and information from the outside world clutter up my inner life? In what ways do I jump from one distraction to another rather than stop and focus on what really matters? Good ponderings for me for Lent; maybe for you too.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB