The Third Thursday after Pascha. CHRISTOS ANESTI! CHRIST IS RISEN! Staying by Oneself (Part III)
Makarios the Great said: “What is needful for monks sitting in their cells is that they should collect their understanding far from all worldly cares, without letting themselves wander around in the vanities of this world, that they should strain toward a single goal, their thoughts constantly directed to God, remaining always concentrated, allowing no worldly distraction into their hearts, neither carnal imaginings nor cares about their parents, nor consolation from their families, but that their mind and all their senses remain in the presence of God, so as to fulfill the saying of the Apostle: let the virgin be very close to the Lord, completely free from distraction” (1 Cor. 7:34).
Fourteen hundred years later Blaise Pascal saw the cause of human wretchedness in the fact that people couldn’t bear staying in their rooms alone. Nowadays, for the most part, we still can’t hold out, as we hop from one thing to another. It’s so easy to find distraction — we need only channel-surf. But what is happening in the soul? Nothing can ripen anymore, nothing can grow, no truth takes place. Maturity calls for quiet. The kellion leads us into the truth. It confronts us with our own truth. But that is the precondition for all human maturity — and for healthy life together.
For the early monks, however, encounter with oneself was also the precondition for every authentic encounter with God. Our piety suffers when we dodge ourselves. In the case of many pious individuals one senses that they are using religion to avoid their own truth. They take refuge in pious thoughts and feelings so they won’t have to encounter themselves. Many of them are fearful of meeting the self, and this translates into a fear of psychology. They damn the obsessive navel-gazing and propose loving God as an alternative.
But one often gets the impression that such persons have not made that much progress in the love of God, that this cursing of psychology doesn’t deepen piety but simply derives from fear of the truth about themselves. In spiritual conversations I often get the feeling that some pious thoughts are meant well, but don’t really add up. There are some who take refuge in such thoughts, in pious-sounding arguments. But they don’t have the courage to look their thoughts in the eye.
The monks’ spirituality is sincere. It doesn’t vault over human reality. Instead, the path to God passes through self-encounter. The monks don’t talk about God; they experience God. They remove all possible distractions in order to orient their minds wholly and completely to God. If I stay in my cell, without doing anything, without having pious thoughts, without reading anything, then I sense what reality is. I can no longer have any pretensions, either about myself or my relations with God.
I may be able to speak and write eloquently about my relationship with God. But when everything is taken away from me and I really sit in all simplicity before God, then the idea occurs to me, first, that everything is boring. Or I begin to suspect that everything I’ve been saying about God doesn’t add up. If I weather this feeling, if I don’t immediately worry about being able to write something, but simply stay put, then something moves within me, then I will touch the truth. The truth is at first relentless, but it also sets us free.
Thus, staying in one’s cell is a reality check, a test to see whether my life and my image of God make sense, whether my love for God is genuine. In my cell I no longer have the possibility of diverting myself, of seeking refuge in activities, of sailing off into daydreams. I have to take a stand. Then God presses in on me. God challenges everything that I have thought up about him and about my life.
In the Middle Ages the monks were forever singing the praises of the cell. They said, “Cella est coelum,” the cell is heaven, where the monks converse familiarly with God, where God’s presence envelops them. Then there is the formula “Cella est valetudinarium,” the cell is an infirmary, a place where the sick can get better. It is a place of wholeness, a place for healing, because we sense God’s loving and healing nearness there. But I can have this positive experience of the cell only if I stay there even when everything in me rebels against it, when I am full of unrest. Once I have overcome this first phase, then I may experience the cell as heaven. Heaven opens before me, my narrow cell breathes the expanses of heaven, because God dwells there.
~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers