“ Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything,” said Abba Moses to a brother who came to him and asked him ‘for a word’.
From the third to the sixth century, in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia groups of spiritual seekers were drawn to a monastic life. The centre of this movement was in Egypt and there these so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers – Abbas and Ammas – experimented with various forms of monasticism, living in community, the solitary life of the hermit, or as groups of individuals living close by one another.
Clearly these people chose to live this way. They did so as a reaction to the society they found themselves in. They withdrew from what they saw as a materialistic society distorted in its relationships. They wanted to experience the presence of God moment by moment and commit themselves to a life of regular prayer and self-enquiry. They were on a permanent retreat, a challenging one, albeit something they had chosen on their spiritual journey.
We too have been on a kind of retreat these past months, one that we did not choose and for which we had not prepared. It has been tough. Like the desert monks we have been living in a variety of communities, in family groupings, in partnerships, or, perhaps most challenging of all, on our own. For some of us, finding a bit of quiet time has been a challenge. For others of us, being on our own with our thoughts and feelings has been an overwhelming pressure.
So what did Abba Moses mean about sitting in your cell? I think that he is saying that, as well as challenges and discomfort, wisdom comes from within. To the Desert Fathers and Mothers being in their ‘cell’ did not just refer literally to the room they lived in, it also meant going inside and being with their discomforts, sitting with themselves and learning every detail of their inner landscape. Quite a challenge and not something that would happen overnight.
As human beings we are programmed for activity – a survival mechanism in the face of danger. When our thoughts and feelings challenge us we also look to a psychological survival mechanism, often involving activity or distraction. However, if we can sit quietly and breathe and be in our cell with our discomfort for a while, we can gradually become calm and at ease with ourselves. It always takes some practice and some self-compassion, recognising that we are human and that these thoughts and feelings are OK. That they are part of being fully human and that others have been this way before us.
We may not have chosen to sit in our cell, but as we are still obliged to do so for the time being, perhaps we can discover that, though it may not ‘teach us everything’, it may set us on the road.