Enter into thy chamber (XXII)

CHAPTER XXII. How the Monks are to sleep
27 Feb. 29 June. 29 Oct.
Let them sleep each one in a separate bed, receiving bedding suitable to their manner of life, as the Abbot shall appoint. If possible, let all sleep in one place: but if the number do not permit of this, let them repose by tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. Let a candle burn constantly in the cell until morning. Let them sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords – but not with knives at their sides, lest perchance they wound themselves in their sleep – and thus be always ready, so that when the signal is given they may rise without delay, and hasten each to forestall the other in going to the Work of God, yet with all gravity and modesty. Let not the younger brethren have their beds by themselves, but among those of the seniors. And when they rise for the Work of God, let them gently encourage one another, because of the excuses of the drowsy.

Saint Benedict’s first disciples embraced the literal application of Chapter XXII in all its details. We, following the practice of the many Benedictine reforms and revivals, give to each monk his own cell: a kind of enclosure within the enclosure, a desert space into which one can withdraw not only for sleep, but also for reading, prayer, and study. Over time, the term “dormitory” came to be applied to the part of the house in which the cells are situated or to the corridor off which the cells open on both sides. In a house not built to be a monastery, such as ours, the cells are situated wherever they can conveniently and suitably be arranged. (Let it be said, in passing, that there is a long tradition of adapting châteaux, manor houses, and farm buildings to monastic life. The purpose-built monastery generally comes later in a community’s history and, even then, may be added onto an existing structure.)

Some monastic writers treat of a “spirituality of the cell”. Even if the expression is somewhat artificial, there remains a long and unbroken current of monastic teaching and practice with regard to the cell that springs from the words of Our Lord Himself:

But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee. (Matthew 6:6)

We read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that a brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything”. Saint Gregory tells us that Saint Benedict, after his unhappy experience with the feckless monks of Vicovaro, “dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholds the hearts of all men”. One of the first great struggles of a new brother is learning how to be still, and how to be content, in the cell. Long after the Desert Fathers and Saint Benedict, in 17th century France, the philosopher Blaise Pascal, a contemporary of Mother Mectilde, recognised modern man’s inability to be alone with himself and God:

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair. When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. (Pensées)

A monk of Silverstream cannot remain all day long in his cell; he must go to choir, to work, to the refectory, and to wherever obedience sends him in the course of the day, but he should, nonetheless, be content to return to his cell and, imitating Saint Benedict, to spend there whatever free moments he can “alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholds the hearts of all men”. Certain things drive a monk out of his cell: untidiness, disorder, and the accumulation of superfluous clothes, books, pious trinkets, and other objects. A monk’s cell must be clean, well-ordered, austere and, yet, sufficiently comfortable for him to want to stay in it; it is not excessive or in any way opposed to austerity to have decent heat and light, a comfortable chair, and some few things of beauty upon which the eye can rest.

A monastic cell has nothing in common with a university student’s room, nor with a bachelor’s flat, nor with a single man’s bedsit. It is a sacred place, a kind of enclosure with the enclosure, a virginal space to which the monk withdraws in order to be alone with himself and with the Bridegroom of his soul. “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and will lead her into the wilderness: and I will speak to her heart” (Osee 2:14). Even if the words spoken to the prophet Osee are not inscribed on the wall of one’s cell, they should be inscribed on every monk’s heart.

A Benedictine, no less than a Carthusian or a Camaldolese, must acquire the grace of love for the cell. A Benedictine ill at ease alone in his cell will be ill at ease everywhere else. The monk who has not learned how to live with himself will find it difficult to live with others and difficult to abide alone beneath the gaze of God. Read Chapter XX of the Imitation of Christ, a book that Blessed Schuster treasured and recommended:

No one is worthy of heavenly comfort, unless they have diligently exercised themselves in holy contrition. If you desire heartfelt contrition, enter into your room, and shut out the clamour of the world, as it is written, `Commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still (Psalm 4:4; Isaias 26:20). Within your cell you will discover what you will only too often lose abroad. The cell that is dwelt in continually becomes a delight, but ill kept it breeds weariness of spirit. If in the beginning of your religious life you have dwelt in it and kept it well, it will later become a dear friend and a welcome comfort.

In silence and quietness the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden mysteries of the Scriptures (Ecclesiasticus 39:1-3). There she finds floods of tears in which she may nightly wash and be cleansed (Psalm 6:6). For the further she withdraws from all the tumult of the world, the nearer she draws to her Maker. For God with His holy angels will draw near to him who withdraws himself from his friends and acquaintances. It is better to live in obscurity and to seek the salvation of his soul, than to neglect this even to work miracles. It is commendable in a Religious, therefore, to go abroad but seldom, to avoid being seen, and to have no desire to see men. (Imitation of Christ, Chapter XX, The Love of Solitude and Silence)

Many things interfere with the acquisition of this love for the cell: a nervous restlessness; a need for stimulation; a fear of being alone, silent, and still. In my own experience, there are four things that make the solitude of the cell sweet: (1) the presence of the Mother of God mediated through a worthy image of her; (2) the tranquillitas ordinis reflected in the tidiness and chaste beauty of one’s cell; (3)  love for the Word of God; (4) the prayer of the heart. I would emphasise the importance of the first of these four things because it reflects the unique grace of the Beloved Disciple: Et ex illa hora accepit eam discipulus in sua, “And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own” (John 19:27).

One Comment