Abba Anthony teaches, “Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with those of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So, like a fish going toward the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we shall lose our interior watchfulness.”
In contemporary society the word “cell” is associated only with prisoners. It carries connotations of punishment and captivity. It speaks of force and control, of limitations and slavery. It stirs up the negative in us like little else. But the monk’s cell is not a place of captivity; it is a place of freedom.
Monastic spirituality does not require withdrawal from the rest of humankind, but it does require interiority. In the desert, each monastic had a separate living space commonly called a cell. It was a small area in which the monk spent hours reading, praying, studying, thinking, or sleeping. To this day, monastic communities still provide small, individual rooms where the monastic can go to be alone, away from the common areas of community dinners, prayer, and work. It is where the monastic, even in a large community, can go to be silent and undisturbed.
Like the fish Abba Anthony speaks of in this saying, it is the monastic cell that anchors the soul in place. The problem, the Desert Monastics would say, is that everyone needs one of these. Everyone. Those who came out to the desert to seek spiritual direction were given sound spiritual advice. The Desert Monastics were not telling people how to be monks. They were telling people from all walks of life—clerical and lay—how to live the spiritual life.
The fact is that human beings need spiritual rest as well as physical rest. Psychologists deal daily with the effects on clients of stress and pressure, of frenzied work and frantic schedules, of open-plan offices and crammed buses, of swarming trains, planes, and automobiles. They see the weary and the worried, the angry and the anxious, and all of them say the same thing: I need time for myself. I need to be able to think for a while. I just need someplace quiet.
It is precisely when life is at its most frantic, most frightening, that we each need a place to go to, a place that wraps us around in silence and calm. No matter who we are or what we do, we need someplace without clutter and disorganization written all over it. We need a cave that is ours. We need someplace we have put aside, a small, simple place we have designated as our doorway to peace, where we can sink into ourselves and find the God who awaits us there.
—from In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom From the Desert Monastics by Joan Chittister (Franciscan Media)