Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Cell Apart

'The bedroom of a person in the world is supposed to contain dear mementos and luxuries and ornaments; sundry easy-chairs and soft pillows and cosy nooks, which are considered adequate to console the bruised spirit after its daily tussle in the arena of men… but in the nun’s life the coziest, quietest nook is an altar before which to pray. Are we strong enough to keep in reserve no lair, no robber’s cave, where we can steal away from God, nursing our pet fancies, or handling the fairy gold of self-indulgence? Are we generous enough to merge ourselves wholly in the unselfishness of divinity? If not, we recoil from the frank simplicity, the austere plainness, of a nun’s cell. Here there is no place for withdrawal into a self which is mere selfishness. Over each door stands the name of a saint, and the mention of some virtue to be remembered and cultivated. The little beds are prim and hard; the pictures are few, and in their intention point heavenward. Cold, literally, the tiny rooms are... with one big window apiece giving plenty of light and air; no carpet, one chair; and the only richness to be detected in all this region of simplicity is that richest blessing – the consolation of faith.' (A Story of Courage, pp. 32-33)

Struggling to describe my first-ever stay in a monastic cell, I've realized that, some years ago, I already wrote about it. My reaction to being in such a setup surprised me, because I had approached this little room with some apprehension. It was a narrow fourth-floor cell, bare of all but the most basic necessities, with one window overlooking the cloister garden below. Here, I would maintain silence. Here, I would be removed from the busy world outside.

'I once spent several days in the cloister of a monastery,' I wrote of this experience. 'I stayed in a simple little cell furnished with twin bed, small chair, dresser, and one tiny table. There was no closet, only a hook behind the door. As the hook strained beneath the weight of all the clothing I had brought with me, I thought of how cluttered was my life compared to the lives of the nuns.

'I spent my first night in this cell sleepless, at times burying my face in the pillow hoping to muffle my sobs. I was not crying from sadness, nor from homesickness. I was crying from something else, something indescribable, something resulting from the strong presence of God that I knew was in that cell. There in that tiny room, I knew I was with God.

'Someone reminded me, several months later, that St. Catherine of Siena had been called to create a cell in her heart where she and God might meet together. Immediately I thought back to my little cell at the monastery. Certainly I, a cloistered heart, had a cell in my heart as well...' (from The Cloistered Heart)

'When the father and mother of St. Catherine of Siena deprived her of all opportunity for time and place to pray and meditate, our Lord inspired her to build a little oratory within her soul, where she could retire mentally and enjoy this holy heartfelt solitude while going about her outward duties.... Because of this, she afterwards counseled her spiritual children to make a cell within their own heart and dwell in it. Therefore, withdraw your spirit from time to time into your heart and there, apart from the world of men, you can converse heart to heart with God.' (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life)



  1. I love this post, my home altar is in many ways much better adorned than our bedroom


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