When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity.
You want meaning or purpose in your life? You want to find your Source? Go to your cell. For those desert monastics, the cell was a solitary cave located a good day’s walk from anyone else’s cave. Sounds pretty grim to me, although in these sayings the word “cell” is spoken with such affection, it’s worth reconsidering.
The cell I know best and truly love is a blank page. I often say to my writing students, “Go to the page and the page will teach you everything you need to write.” Sure, we can learn from good teachers and great literature and helpful peers, but the essential learning happens by writing. I suspect the Abbas and Ammas experienced the emptiness and quiet of their cells the same way writers experience the page—as a place to practice ongoing engagement with what’s most life-giving.
The cell of the page (by way of example) is expansive. At first it takes some discipline to begin; we have to push away other obligations, we have to dismiss our own judgments, we have to focus. When we finally enter the blank page, we discover how permission-giving it is and how full of revelation. Eventually writers learn to expand the length and breadth of that space by dismissing the inner critic, so we no longer care about messy handwriting or bad spelling or half-baked ideas, or by dismissing our concerns about a readership’s judgment. By disciplining ourselves to think differently, we can find greater and greater freedom.
Essentially, the page teaches asceticism. We post-modern folks dismiss asceticism as a bizarre abstention from indulgence, but the desert tradition teaches otherwise. “The cell stands for any set of self-limiting conditions voluntarily embraced, which in an identical way furnish the conditions for spiritual work,” my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault writes. In an ironic, paradoxical way, some self-limiting conditions make us more free. Go figure.
Or, as Abba Poemen said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” The spiritual path requires letting go of what doesn’t give us life and giving ourselves wholly to what does. From the outside this can look dire, but from the inside the story’s quite different. What a topsy-turvy faith! –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice is now available for preorder from the publisher.
Please join me to celebrate the transformative potential of revision and the launch of Living Revision at the Revision Revival at Wisdom Ways, November 17th from 7-8:30 p.m.
October 13: Mysticism
November 10: Holy Sexuality
December 8: The World Boiled Down to a Drop
September 30, 9-12: Writing the Sacred Journey: An introductory workshop at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.