The Cell [tradition/reflection]

Abba Moses the Ethiopian was enslaved as a young man. He fled from his master and became a robber, living by violence, becoming the leader of the robbers due to his great strength and abundant energy. Overcome by conscience and penitent, he became a monk in the desert, eventually overcoming the burden of his physical longings to found a monastery of his own. He was greatly revered in life: and then martyred by raiders with the sword at the age of 75, in 405 AD.

Among his sayings is this: “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” It was clearly intended for a monastic and desert audience but it is advice which holds true in every other time of testing and challenge which we face. 

Advent can be a cell if we choose to embrace it, to live in it fully and deeply, to let it spread into every aspect of our lives without trying to stand on tiptoes and see where it will lead. We cannot and must not let the pure joy of Christmas Day cast its light forwards. We must live in Advent and we must let it teach us everything, in all of its starkness and its slowness and its simplicity. Wait, Advent tells us, just breathe. Godot will come- and you will be made ready to greet him by the way you live in your Advent cell. “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

A season in our life (whether traumatic or joyous) can be a cell, flavouring every meal and mouthful with bitterness or honey. A heavy diagnosis or becoming a parent. The shattering of planned hope or falling in love. The devastation of bereavement or the fulfilment of a longed-for dream. Sitting exams where exam season becomes everything and the endless summer which follows. All of these things, and so many others, can be a cell- sometimes imprisoning, sometimes limitless as the horizon. “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” 

Our daily life can be a cell also- perhaps the life we have chosen or the life which we don’t remember choosing but which is ours nonetheless- teaching us something profound about who we are and who God is, if we let that happen, if we can pause enough. Attending to our life might show us that its daily routines and duties and possibilities are a dancefloor in which we might, for a moment, find ourselves caught up by Love in a timeless and weightless waltz. “Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

And this ongoing pandemic might be a monastic cell, showing us vital things about who we are and who God is, simplifying, stripping away, reducing. Perhaps the taking away of familiar landmarks and known routes into God might force us more deeply onto the God we cannot control and cannot tie down. Perhaps, for a time, living with strangeness and the deeply unfamiliar will make us pilgrims and not settlers any longer. Perhaps this pandemic (and all of the limitations which have followed) might stop us living like people who fancy that they ‘own’ God and might make us once more questers and adventurers, poets and artists: might make us dancers and disciples set free at last from all of the weight we normally stumble beneath. If we go to our cell then our cell will teach us everything.  

(My reflection was inspired by Stephen, Archbishop of York, who, in a zoom call, made the connection between the quotation from Abba Moses about the cell teaching us and the ongoing pandemic. I am grateful to him.)

Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul, Wokingham and Area Dean of Sonning in the Diocese of Oxford.