Since the beginning of our current crisis and the start of isolation and confinement, the media have been awash with advice on how we might successfully use this time in order to self-improve and catch up with our lives, while remaining healthy and making ready for a new normality. And in truth, for those of us with access to the internet, the possibilities for ‘personal growth’ seem endless, whether through online academic education modules, virtual sport classes, art webinar and tutorials, chatgroups, and more. The range is simply dizzying and the temptation to keep searching for that one activity which will bring about fulfilment can be overwhelming.
I am sure I can’t be the only one to have felt some kind of compulsion to review those possibilities, and suddenly wondering what it was all about as I was looking at yet another online offering. More prosaically though, I have embraced yogurt making and sourdough break baking with gusto while also trying to maintain some healthy balance in the kitchen. I am attempting to work through the pile of books that had been waiting to be read. And I am also trying to maintain some boundaries in my living and study space, where the whole of life is now taking place and into which the whole world is able to enter through Zoom.
In the early days of Christianity, in the 3rd and 4th century, many men and women left the cities in order to try and meet God and explore their faith in a context of solitude in the desert, away from urban temptations. Whether in the Egyptian desert or in Cappadocia in Turkey, they either lived completely alone, as hermits, or in communities which came together for meals and worship but otherwise living separate lives. These men and women became highly sought by the spiritual seekers of the time, who went to visit them in droves.
Much wisdom came out of their experience, and their sayings -often simple yet profound – have been food for thought for generations of Christians since. One such story came to mind as I was writing.
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Many of us are living through a new experience, unable to leave home, to meet family and friends, while aware of the suffering of the world. And that experience is almost a monastic experience, an experience of being in our cell – whether we live alone or we have family with us. We can choose whether to seize the opportunity given to us to slow down and contemplate a new way of being and finding God in the ordinariness of our home life, or to do everything in our power in order to escape.
The monastic tradition has developed considerably further since the desert fathers and mothers, but the principle remains. Fulfilment does not come from the agitation and frenzy of the world as we have come to believe. But instead, fulfilment comes from an ordered and quiet life with balance and structure. Balance between work, prayer, study, and leisure – structure being provided by regular prayer points during the day, framing our activities.
We are all having different experiences of this time of global anxiety. Some of us are with loved ones, some are separated from our loved ones. Some are used to live on their own, others not. Some of us have remained healthy, others are having to deal with illness. And all of us, one way or another, are having to deal with different forms of griefs for losses – whether through the death of a family member or a friend but also through the loss of jobs, disruption in education, or the many other ways in which our hopes and dreams have been shattered.
At this time, we need to be gentle on ourselves and not create additional expectations. Instead, let us use the time of confinement we are experiencing to be open to the Spirit and learn from our ‘cell’ and notice the so many ways in which we experience the grace of God in the daily round.
But also let us notice what God will tell us about our self through this experience. What are you enjoying, what are you missing? What is bringing you close to God, what is taking you further away? This might be something you might want to do as you pray at the end of the day and as you reflect and offer to God all that has been.
God does not will human disasters, but God provides us with the faith to learn and grow through this. So ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
The Cathedral clergy are available for those who would specifically like to discuss questions of faith at this time. Appointments for phone or zoom conversations can be made through the main Cathedral phone number.
Photos : Cappadocia 2015 © Bertrand Olivier
 In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
By John Chryssavgis, p 42
Beth says:April 25, 2020 at 10:53 AM
Thank you for this, Bertrand. I agree — the hundreds of suggestions about how to use this time seem to create a huge pressure to accomplish something significant, when actually the most significant thing might be what you talk about here. I love these pictures too.
Penny says:April 25, 2020 at 1:38 PM
Grief and gratitude are two sides of the same coin…