In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses to ask for advice. The old man said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
Nearly 1700 years ago the small vanguard of what would grow to more than 100,000 people left civilization and moved into the deserts of Egypt and Syria. They were the first monks (from the Greek, meaning “single” or “alone”); we know them today as the Desert Mothers and Fathers.
When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion the Roman persecution of Christians ceased. Being a Christian became easy, even fashionable, so much so that these Christian women and men left for the hard living of the desert.
These early monks lived in caves or small dwellings, known as cells. They lived radically isolated and simple lives practicing a disciplined (ascetic) life that we would consider quite extreme by today’s standards. Yet, their lives were attractive to many—even then people would travel great distances for a word of wisdom from these monks.
This kind of simple life can be attractive to us, particularly in our frenetic world. We long for the slower pace. But I’m not talking about seeking after a simple life for the sake of escaping the pace of the world. What drove these women and men into the deserts was not their desire to escape society and live simply; rather, it was their desire to directly confront the root cause of all battles…ourselves…and this was their chosen battlefield.
You see, must have been from a the cell that Pogo’s creator finally met the enemy and discovered he was us. It was from his literal prison cell that Solzhenitsyn came to understand that the line separating good from evil does not run between countries or classes of people or political parties but through the heart of each of us.
But to enter one’s cell without the Christian God is to join the path of a downward spiral to the nothingness of Sarte’s existentialism, the place of ultimate hopelessness. By contrast, the great hopefulness contained within the writings of these early monks remains with as much veracity today as it had 1700 years ago.
Here is something I have learned: you do not have to become a monk living in the desert or a monastery to experience life in a monastic cell. Life in a cell can be had in the desert or in the midst of a bustling, modern city. There is a cell awaiting each of us if we would only seek it.
The path to eternal life is difficult. The gate of entry is narrow and the path is hard. I am coming to believe that eventually, in this world or the next, each of us must learn what our cell has to teach us; more correctly, to allow God to shape us into the image of His Son, Jesus, who is leading us into life with the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. There is no other path.
Perhaps you know of such a person, a monk-in-the-world; they can be recognized as ones who strive to live with God at a different pace and with a different set of priorities. You might even envy their life. Be careful of what you wish.
What is a cell?
A cell is more a state of being than a geographical place. When we decide to respond to Jesus’ invitation to seek our true selves in Him we move into our cell. But what does this really mean? It means that we begin to learn to stop hiding from God in fear. We begin learning to step out from behind the things that we believe define us or we let distract us; things, such as job titles, street addresses, school names on our diplomas, emails, the number of zeros on our paychecks, prior accomplishments, the shape of our bodies, names on the labels on our clothes, task lists, immersion in the lives of favorite celebrities, constant music, TV shows, 401(k)s, cell phones, texting, number of Facebook friends…these things and more feed our false identity and distract us with their allure.
What awaits us in our cell?
In our cell there are several beings present. We often think of the monk living a solitary life. This is not so. God (the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit) and the Devil and his minions are in our cell with us.
In our cell we discover that the battle takes place within the very being of the ourselves with God encouraging, beckoning, and strengthening and Satan taunting, accusing, and attacking.
In our cell we discover that in each moment we face a choice, “With whom will I side in the battle?”
In our cell we learn that we can choose poorly and there are consequences.
In our cell we ask the most profound questions of life. Questions such as, Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What lies beyond this life? From where does my worth come? How do I really measure a successful and productive life? In what (or whom) do I actually trust? Where do I find hope for today? What will tomorrow bring? How do I know whether this path is the right path? Am I really loved by God? How much longer?
In our cell the lies we have believed all of our lives are gradually exposed.
In our cell we revisit the precipitating events for our deepest wounds.
In our cell we confront head-on temptation from the eight deadly thoughts that torment us: gluttony, lust, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride.
In our cell we experience physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship.
In our cell we learn that no woman or man can survive their cell without the presence of God; we are simply unable to withstand the company of our sinful selves on our own.
What does our cell teach us?
In our cell we learn to distinguish between the voices of God and Satan.
In our cell we learn how to choose God, and when we choose poorly we find God who is always calling to us, helping us, and urging us to turn back toward Him.
In our cell one by one the questions we had begin to dissolve as we draw closer to God Himself. We ask. He answers, “I AM.” Mysteriously, that answer begins to satisfy us.
In our cell we gradually begin to learn that Truth is a Person and not a set of rules.
In our cell we come to understand what it really means that by His wounds we are healed.
In our cells we find new memories of our past traumas in which Jesus was indeed present though we knew it not at the time.
In our cells we learn disciplines that help us cooperate with God as He gradually digs out the roots of all temptations and our heart of stone is gradually replaced by God’s heart of flesh.
In our cell we learn that mysteriously through the work of the Holy Spirit our perseverance in the trials changes our character, and we find real hope.
In our cell we learn that we are God’s beloved son or daughter in whom He is well pleased and we begin to hear Him singing over us.
The real beauty of the cell
Each of the lessons from our cell is the Holy Spirit’s way of teaching us a new step of the Divine dance with the Trinity. As we are able to grow in our confidence in our ability to move with God to the rhythms of His grace we begin cooperate with God and allow Him to work in us, gradually we are stripped of all that we have learned to hide behind and we will once again stand before God, clothed in His righteousness and unafraid. True self being led gracefully across the dance floor by the Trinity.