The Secret of a Monk’s Cell
Monks have secrets worth knowing, though sometimes the value of a certain secret isn’t immediately evident.
One such secret concerns the monk’s cell and the importance that classical spiritual writers attached to a monk staying inside his cell. For instance, Abba Moses, one of the great Desert fathers, would counsel his monks: "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." Other Desert fathers coined lines like: "Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work, only do not leave your cell." Or, "Don’t pray at all, just stay in your cell." Thomas a Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, famously wrote: "Every time you leave your cell, you come back less a man."
Advice like this will probably strike us as unbalanced, unhealthily monastic, unhealthily ascetical, unhealthily other-worldly, or as simply unhealthy. At very least, it will strike us as having little or nothing to do with our own normal, busy, involved, red-blooded lives. What can advice like that possibly offer us? Aren’t we supposed to be in community with others?
Properly understood, the advice to stay in our cell and let it teach us everything offers some of the spiritual wisdom of the ages, of the masters. Staying inside our cell is one of the keys within the spiritual and human journey. But that needs to be understood in context.
This advice is being given to monks, to professional contemplatives, to persons living inside a monastic enclosure, to persons whose very vocation it is to live in solitude, to persons whose primary duty of state it is to pray in silence. In such a context, the word "cell" becomes a code-word that encapsulates the entire vocation and duties of state of a monk. Thus when Abba Moses says, "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything" he is, in effect, counselling due diligence and fidelity. Do what you came here to do! To remain in one’s cell is synonymous with fidelity.
And that’s sound spiritual advice for everyone, not just monks. Our "cell" is another word for our primary set of responsibilities, for our duties of state, for due diligence and fidelity inside of our vocations, relationships, marriages, families, churches, and communities. To "leave one’s cell" is to neglect our responsibilities or to be unfaithful. To let "our cell teach us everything" is to have faith that if we remain faithful inside of our moral values and our proper commitments then virtue and fidelity will themselves teach us what we need to know to come to maturity and sanctity. Understood in that way, Thomas a Kempis’ warning that every time we leave our cell we come back less as persons becomes a practical warning: "Every time we flirt with infidelity and every time we neglect our responsibilities, we are less for that." Akin, I think, to what the Gospels mean when they say that immediately after Peter betrayed Jesus "he went outside". In monastic terms, he left his cell.
Inside of Christian spirituality and inside of the spiritualities of all the great world religions there is the common set of principles around this theme: Be attentive to your legitimate responsibilities, to your duties of state. Do cheerfully and faithfully what duty asks of you and that will teach you what you need to know to come to God. Fidelity to the demands of your life can be a deep form of prayer. Fidelity demands that you sweat blood sometimes; don’t leave your commitments just because they are difficult or the grass seems greener on the other side. And especially there is the principle: "Don’t be unfaithful! Fidelity to what God has called you to is ultimate virtue. The one who perseveres to the end will be saved.
"Our "monk’s cell" then is our marriage, our home, our nexus of relationships, our work, our private set of burdens and tensions, our truth, our virtue, and our personal integrity. The day’s duties are "your cell". The spiritual task is to remain inside of that, to let them teach you, to let them be a form of prayer, to not flirt with what’s outside of them, and to make fidelity to them your vocation. Stay inside your cell!
After Martin Luther King’s funeral as the television cameras were pulling away from the cemetery, one of the news crews spotted on an old man, standing by himself at the edges of the crowd, crying and praying. Live television loves real tears and so a microphone and camera were soon thrust inside this man’s private grief: "Why are you sad? What did Martin Luther King mean to you?" they asked him.
His answer: "The man we are burying today was a great man because he was faithful, he believed in us even when we stopped believing in ourselves, and he stayed with us even when we weren’t worth staying with!"
Had he been a Desert Father or Thomas a Kempis, he might have simply said: "He was a great man - he stayed inside his cell!"