The monastic cell, Or, how to live with your self
Today, on the second day of Christmas, we want to look at our second monastic room: the cell. Why do we come here second, right after entering the gate? Because this place where we are alone with God is the foundational room for our life together with others. What is the monastic cell, and why is it so important?
The Desert Elders were fond of puzzles, and this bit of wisdom from Abba Moses — “your cell will teach you everything” — is a fine example. Of course, this advice is given in conversation, as two monks talk together. So I cannot be taught “everything” alone in my cell. But it is only in my cell where I can learn the foundational things. These things cannot be taught, they can only be discovered in the vast internal silence.
The cell comes from the Latin “cella” and means simply “room,” as in “Go to your room.” In the monastery, it is a place of retreat, an intimate room, where I find myself alone with myself. It is the place where I must learn to love my self, to put up with my self, to even endure myself, in order to become whole. It is a place of contemplation and solitude, and of quiet. Here in the quiet, I can no longer flee into busyness, but I am confronted with my own self and thus with basic existential questions.
It is the place where I must learn
to love my self, to put up with my self,
to even endure myself, in order to become whole.
The Danish spiritual writer Søren Kierkegaard describes such inner workings as a form of “anthropological contemplation,” the intimate and existential contemplation of my own being-human (anthropos), with my particular givens of existence, my burdens and my blessings, my longings and my fear. Here I am confronted with the big questions: who am I as a human among other living beings, what is my path, what am I called to do in this life?
But why is this painful and slow search for the deeper self so foundational? In his classic text on Christian community, Life Together, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a simple claim: in order to live together in community, to love one another as we love ourselves, we must learn how to be alone. One cannot be in communion if one has not learned how to be alone, Bonhoeffer states. And as we visit other rooms in the monastery throughout the next days we will learn that his reverse statement is also true: “Let him, who is not in community beware of being alone.”(Bonhoeffer 1954)
This active tension of being together and being alone can be found in monastic traditions since early times, but it must always be constructed and actively maintained.
Finding your Cell
This year, as we make our journey into the 12 Days of Christmas, Chuck and I needed to first figure out how we would live in communion and how we would retreat to our “cell.” Last year as we wrote the first series, we were helped by the rhythm of a real monastery, as guests at St. Benedict’s monastery. This time we are in our own little home, preparing for the birth of our child. While the monastery offered us a stable structure, three prayers, shared meals with the communion, we now need to figure out our own structure, and practice discipline, in order to get it to work.
How often do we pray with each other, and when? Who will prepare meals when? How much time do we spend together and how much time do we give each other to retreat? And how do we prepare for the task of parenting?
The Christmas season seems to be particularly challenging for the task of finding our cell. We all can feel the call again, in the centuries-old traditions in which we participate, in the dark of the holy night, in the times between visitations, gift wrapping and unwrapping. We all long for a time of solitude, where we can ponder the old story of Divine birth in our own heart.
But how do we get there?
The need for retreating
It’s seems an open secret that being alone is an important art, but that most of us find it difficult to do. In fact, being alone can be dangerous: One can fall into loneliness and despair. Such is not the being alone one needs to discover and to deepen the self. Instead, we need a kind of “Einsamkeit” as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke invites us into, which helps us to retreat from the busyness of every day life or of the holiday seasons, the social tasks and expectations projected onto us, even the many seductions of community and social networking that keep our minds and eyes busy. Such solitude is different from loneliness, it neither means nor endorses leaving people behind, but calls us to retreat into the presence of the moment in which we are alone with God.
Spiritual leaders across ages and cultures from Jesus to Saint Benedict to Mother Theresa have chosen periods of solitude in order to understand their calling and to grow closer to their Divine purpose. They went out alone into the desert, lived in caves or retreated into utter silence.
Saint Benedict, before he became the famous monastic leader, retreated into a cave in the lonely hills of Subiaco — for three years — where he wrestled with himself and with God. Still he was not fully alone, but visited by monks, who fed him and gave him counsel.
We probably do not need to find a cave as Benedict did to retreat for the rest of our lives. But we need to find, or create, a place from time to time which resembles such an earthly womb. A place where the depths can be explored, and our self can be birthed time and again.
This place is the cell, a room for deepening and personal growth. It is a place of self reflection, a place of darkness and new beginnings, where we walk through our pains until they give birth to new beginnings.
The cell is a place where we can close the door and be alone. Where we do not need to respond to the phone or the daily demands. It is a place in which we can breath, reflect, contemplate and pray. Retreating into ourselves is a challenge, for even here, we are not alone. We bring with us our wounds, our ruminations, sorrows, and disappointments. We meet all sorts of concerns, fears, and hidden pains. And as we look at these in love, as we welcome them into ourselves, we discover, and begin to form, the deeper self who is both alone and connected to all. We become the innkeeper as we find in our hearts chamber, our inner monastery, a place to welcome and receive all these guests with care.
And as in a womb, we are not alone on this way. We need guidance, another person, a spiritual director, a midwife, a friend, a wise elder, facilitating our formation. Just as the little child knows the mother is close behind when she tries her first steps walking alone, we need guidance during times of solitude and a community experienced with time alone and time together.
We come out of our cell refreshed and renewed. Thus reformed, we can re-emerge into the tension between the internal and external world, between the intimacy of the cell and the open life in community
Where do I have room for me, for my self?
Where and when can I come to myself in a safe space, supported but not distracted by others?
What is waiting for me in my uttermost being, in the chamber of my heart?
Two Monks Seek the Center of the World
There were two monks who read together an old book that said that at the end of the world there was a place on which rested heaven and earth. They decided to seek this place and not to turn back until they had found it.
They wandered through the world encountering innumerable dangers and suffering every austerity that such a journey through the world can produce; every temptation that might lead a human astray from the goal.
Just as they had read, there stood a door on which one needed only to knock and one would find God. Finally, they had found what they had long sought. With trembling hearts they knocked on the door, and as it opened and they stepped through, they saw they were standing back at home in their own monastery cell.
Then they realized: the place on which heaven and earth rest can only be found in the place that God has already given us.
Question: Could these monks have come to the same insight without their journey?
(Source: Wolfgang Erik, Hoffnungstexte, Radius Verlag; translated from the German by Chuck Huff)