In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 
 
 

 

Solitude of the Cell

10 October 2018

The memoria of St Bruno and the Solemnity of the Dedication bring to the fore the themes of solitude in the one, and prayer in the other.  Monks and nuns seek both solitude and prayer, whether they are hermits or cenobites.  They go apart from the world in order to seek God, to encounter and contemplate Him.

            What is it possible to say about solitude in the cenobitic life, where the element of the common life is so pronounced?  It is not the stark solitude of the eremitic life, which is the vocation only of the few; yet the aspect of solitude in our life should not be dismissed or squeezed out.  Already by our enclosure, our silence and constraints on speech, our emphasis on the radical importance of the cell, we have separated ourselves from the world.  Neverthe­less, how do we reconcile even this mitigated solitude with an often busy communal life?

            A few, simple reflections to begin.  Our life has its source in God.  By meditating on the Trinitarian life as it has been revealed to us, we start to understand the interconnection of solitude and communion in our monastic life.  This is not a talk on the Trinity, but it is helpful for our theme to acknowledge in God both transcendence and the intra-Trinitarian life of communion.  While God is not solitary, man experiences Him at times as solitude, because of His otherness.  This is attested by many of the mystics, particularly the so-called Rhineland mystics.  Popularly, one speaks of being alone with the Alone.  He is also, as Revelation tells us, a trinity of persons, a communion of love between the Father and the consubstantial Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  Since the nature of this totally other God in a Trinity of Persons is self-giving love, He desires and wills, in all freedom, to create and give Himself to finite beings, to us.  As creatures, we are distinct from Him and, in a different way, from each other.  We are, therefore, created solitary, with a mysterious incommunicability of essence, yet destined to seek his presence and share in the divine nature through the grace won for us by Jesus Christ.  We are forever searching for communion with the Infinite Creator, who called us out of nothing into being.  It is then, the vocation of the human person to be a solitary turned towards the Face of God.  And since the human person is in the image of God, we, too, while being essentially alone, have received the commandment to turn in love toward our fellow-men.  The more gratuitously we do so, the more we resemble our Creator.  Perhaps the analogy must stop there, for there are other reasons why we turn towards our neighbour in our solitariness.  We were not created self-sufficient.  We are interdependent creatures, half-finished and forever seeking fulfilment, the complementary other.  We need each other for so many things and this is not to our shame.  No man is an island.  It is our nature, even our unfallen nature.  We are simultaneously solitary, social and incomplete beings.

            Some of us, however, those who become monks and nuns, actively seek to explore our solitude, ipso facto renouncing many social ties.  For us, solitude is where God may be found in an intimate way.  It has its exterior aspect, in imitation of the early Christian ascetics, who sought out the desert in the hope of finding God there.  Thus there is, firstly, a physical place of solitude and for us cenobites, this is the monastery.  Within the monastery, it is the cell; and here the notions of exterior and interior solitude combine.  The cell is the place which enables us to journey within to the cell of the heart.  Famously, as in the Desert Fathers’ saying, we hear the call: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell with teach you all things.”  Remain, abide in your cell. What does this abiding teach us which the rest of our cenobitic structure does not teach, or teaches us differently?  Liturgy, lectio, community life and work are key arches in that structure.  They lead us, if we are apt disciples, to God.  They therefore have exactly the same aim as the solitude of the cell.  Each enjoins a specific kind of silence and ascesis.  In the liturgy, in choir, there are periods of silence which are an integral part of worship.  We practise, it has often been said, the evangelical counsels, whereby we are bound more closely to Christ.  This is especially true of obedience; adherence to the word, to the simplicity, even the austerity, of the Chant, to the liturgical norms, to one another.  We embrace the poverty of spirit of the humble member of a monastic choir.  No place for prima donnas there!  And purity of heart, the interior chastity of God’s singer, whose praise is reserved for God and all else only in and under Him.  Community life teaches us charity, summed up in the sometimes painful exercise of mutual patience.  It instructs us in the difficult balance between speech and silence, so that the path to God might be smoothed out for each one.  In a fraternal and sensitive community, each one respects and protects the other’s solitude and need for silence.  When to speak; when not to speak.  There is a refinement of judgement needed here, which is learnt only from listening to the Holy Spirit, in an inner attitude of humility and love.  In work, too, a like equilibrium has to be found.  When much work has to be done, there is the constant siren call of activism.  Sometimes we are, indeed, simply busy and then we must get on with life cheerfully, facing the not inconsiderable challenge of keeping our hearts and minds in peaceful silence in the midst of our activities.  Sometimes, nevertheless, we succumb to an inner nervousness at the fact of never getting on top of our work; we may work overtime or late or frantically or uneasily.  As we know so well, this disposition is inimical to interior solitude.  We are being driven by something other than the desire to find God in our work.  Then we complain that we are too busy; but it is we ourselves who are the slave drivers.  We can rectify this inner state by accepting that our life is a continual work in progress, that we are working for Christ, not for results, not even primarily for the monastery.  Our work will always be unfinished.  Let us find the still point in all our busyness.  Ours is to preserve the solitary heart and keep silence when it is enjoined and whenever possible.

            Liturgy, lectio community, work, all teach us about the way to God; are ways to God, demanding, as we have seen, their own kinds of silence and solitude.  From what has not been a digression, we return now to the cell, that other important teacher.  Attachment to the cell has been called an espousal, with the implication that our relation to it is more than that of a disciple to a teacher.  It is that of the soul to the Beloved.  Solitude is to be sought not only in the exterior place – the monastery, the cell – but also in the interior place, the cell of the heart or inner sanctuary of the spirit.  It has been remarked perceptively that solitude and heart are almost interchangeable terms.  Our life, in its essence typified by the cell, is a contemplative search for God in this interior solitude.  In the Canticle we read: “Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves” (3,1).  “I slept but my heart was awake” (5,2).  Wide awake in her solitude, the soul seeks to know the Beloved, to open the door of her heart, closed to all others, to the One who can fill up her solitude with his Presence.

            This disposition for mutual receptivity, for abiding in the Other, is not confined to the single experience but is a radical condition for living in the cell, in the heart, in solitude.  Fascinated by God, remarks Père Lassus in his little book Pierre Damien, l’homme des déserts de Dieu, the monk or nun sits, abides in the school of the cell and learns by a form of osmosis the true art of living.  This is not without a struggle.  (If this is not your experience, then God is leading you by a different road.)  He is joined, as it were, by a strange companion on the road: emptiness.  It is not a sign that one has enrolled by mistake in the wrong class or that one will go mad if one stays a moment longer.  It is the authentic mark of the beginning.  Emptiness may take the form of dullness and weariness but, more often than not, this interior desert is peopled with restless thoughts and distractions, more or less perplexing and unwelcome; or if welcome, usually for the wrong reason.  We should very much like to escape the confrontation with the content of our psyche and our ego-self.  At first we may have a good try; we fail to recognise that it is only in the deep acceptance of this lonely battle that we learn interior poverty, our own inadequacy and our complete dependence on God.  To change the metaphor, it is more effective for survival to plunge into a huge wave advancing towards one than to run from it.  If we do not fly from emptiness but sit with it quietly, we can hope in time to discover a sense of unity in ourselves, or more biblically, a becoming like a little child again.  We discover also that God is not so much over against us as a Being in whom we live and move and have our being.  This is quies, repose, never without labour, but, in the thought of St Peter Damian, a spiritual reality which brings interior freedom, the “joy of a heart that is not dominated by the tyranny of multiple harassing needs of body, mind and imagination.”  The strange companion of the beginning has become the familiar friend of the route.

            The purpose of sitting in the cell is not only the restoration of the person, the healing of his wounds or even the revelation to himself of the most profound secrets of his heart (cf Peter Damian) but, as we say, the discovery of the presence of the Lord Jesus  For this we need silence, inextricably linked to solitude.  The cell, says Lassus again, is la patrie du silence, the homeland of silence.  Peter declares that the more human words cease, the more the Temple of God is raised in us.  He writes in his Opusculum 195: “When the monk keeps silence he is raised above himself, for man’s spirit when wrapped in the bands of silence rises towards heavenly realities.”  Silence is the fundamental condition for listening, for the prayer of union.  He exhorts: “You carry with you, my brethren, the key of your cell; carry likewise the key of your lips.  You put a bolt on your door; put also a salutary barrier to your mouth.”  This is a preparation for the silence of the cell, which is likely to be more profound than silence elsewhere in the monastery.  It permits the monk to listen intently to God’s word in scripture and in prayer.  He becomes a person of the interior life (Peter again), awake to the birth in the soul of the word which / who wishes to fill him with knowledge as the waters cover the sea (Is 11,9).

            Emptied to some degree of self and selfish attachments through solitude and silence, his face is turned now both towards heaven and earth, God and man.  This is Richard Cashen: Solitude can constitute the monk as “a silent sign of Christ living and praying in the Church, enabling him to taste and see that the Lord is sweet and to experience in his inmost being the full reality of God’s mercy to man.  The monk’s solitude must be translated into the words ‘to live with Christ’.  Then his solitude becomes a fortress protecting his heart against all that is not Christ; its only function is to allow Christ to live in him.”  (RA Cashen: Solitude in the thought of Thomas Merton)

            If the monk is truly a “silent sign of Christ”, finding his all in God, he shall be for the world something of what Christ is for him.  He shall be able to reach out to others “without vanity or complacency, loving them with something of the purity and gentleness and hiddenness of God’s love for him.    This is the true fruit and true purpose of Christian solitude.”  (Ibid.)