The term ‘cell’ has become one which is synonymous with religious and especially monastic-contemplative life, and yet it shocks! We think immediately of prison, of a deprivation of freedom, of limited association with others, of a regime not chosen but imposed, of punishment for crimes committed. But the term ‘cell’ is, in fact, a neutral word, one which is given more content depending on its context. It simply means ‘a little room’.
Christ Jesus gives us a taste of its use when, in Matthew 6, he recommends that, when we pray, we should do so in our private room. We go to the place which is set aside for such personal tasks, not so that we can be alone, but rather that we can be with the Father who sees everything that we do when we withdraw from ordinary, everyday living.
It’s not surprising then that, when the first men and women went into the desert parts of Egypt to live a life of God-centred search, they took to living in cells. And these cells became the places of their private prayer and their personal manual work. The cell was a place which appears to have been relatively simple in its design, uncluttered, free of distractions, a place where the real work – interior work – could take place. That’s not to say that distractions were entirely absent from these personal monastic cells – the stories about the desert fathers and mothers indicate that the cell could be a place of trial, of temptation, of testing.
But above all the cell was a place intended for encounter with God, the encounter which was brought about by the ongoing work of reflection, especially the reflection which was focused on remembering phrases from Scripture and their prayerful repetition, or which used the wise word of a desert elder, someone who had spent many years in prayer and fasting and who could help form those who came for guidance.
Abba John gave this advice, ‘Watching (ie keeping vigil) means to sit in the cell and always be mindful of God. This is what is meant by, “I was on the watch and God came to me”’.
Abba Poemen said that Abba Ammonas said, ‘A man may remain for a hundred years in his cell without learning how to live in the cell.’
It might be said that the cell is an attitude and practice even more than a place. Abba John’s advice is clear – he associates sitting in the cell with mindfulness of God – but this is a remembrance of God which isn’t confined to one place or one room. The cell is an invitation to create a heart and desire which is ready to find God even in unexpected places. Likewise with Abba Ammonas’s advice – we might think we have put everything in place and discover that we have not switched on to God present or to what he is asking of us.
Undoubtedly, to have a room or space which we can call ‘cell’ is important, because, as persons, our lives are lived concretely in places and spaces and times of day and night. So, the cell needs to be a place which is dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only – it is, if you like, consecrated by the God-given desire to meet God in that place and way of praying. When I am in my cell I am there for one thing – to listen for God who invites me into deep relationship with him and gives me every opportunity to live into that relationship. The cell, therefore, is a place which is uncluttered, free of unnecessary things. It is the place in which I begin to practice my lectio divina, meeting and listening to Christ as he speaks to me, Word in scriptural word. It is a place in which I review the matters of the day, my meetings with friends, family, work colleagues, strangers, and bring them before God. It is the place in which I can articulate the experiences and thoughts which move me and afflict me, to the God who waits for me to tell him what my life is in these moments. It is a place of discernment, where I ask questions about decisions which I must make so that my will is brought into harmony with God’s will for me.
The cell, above all, is the place in which I can be myself before the God who is himself with me. In the moment when Moses caught sight of something extraordinary in the desert – a bush burning – the cell received a content (Exodus 3). In that encounter, Moses fell on his face before the living God who told him his name, and so drew him closer than he could ever have wished. Moses, a man lost after all, wondering about his own origins and identity, about the burdens of his past, running away and not knowing where he was running to, took off his sandals and found himself in a place which God had consecrated by his presence and into which he invited Moses. That place and experience became the icon of all thin places, in which we remain in this passing world and yet feel deeply that we have been invited into the transcendent presence of God who reveals himself as he pleases, whenever he pleases.
Perhaps it’s time for you to set aside place in your own life, uncluttered, blessed, and made separate by God-Present, a place which is only and above all for your own prayer and listening, a place and space which God has reserved for you so that he can share his thoughts with you, and yours with him.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-