“Remain in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
The cell sometimes teaches you new things, but it also reveals old things. The cell lets you know what you’re already like. And is in this way like a mirror that you use. Outside of the cell, we’re often looking at other people. We’re assessing them, critiquing them, comparing ourselves favorably or unfavorably to them. Almost all of this looking and critiquing is harmful and leads to a distorted vision. Both pride and despair are born that way, by looking at others constantly. The cell, by contrast, leads to a purified and clearer vision.
When you have only yourself and God for company in the cell, you can see yourself more clearly. This is when you begin to understand your character. Your character is simply what you have become morally. You are (at a given moment in time) more temperate or intemperate. More courageous or cowardly, etc. You have become, by choosing certain things over and over again, a certain kind of person. And we typically call this a person’s character. It’s the sum total of his or her moral growth (or deterioration) up to this point.
So how does this mirror of the cell work? What tactics do we use to avoid peering into it? And how can we make the best use of the mirror during quarantine?
The cell works by separating you from others. This sounds unpleasant in quarantine time. Haven’t we heard this enough and seen its bad effects? After all, don’t the philosophers say that “the human person is a social animal?” This is true. But being alone, embracing solitude in the cell, is also a chance to take stock. We now have the opportunity, the gift, of solitude.
Your cell is the place where you encounter yourself. And this might be an unpleasant meeting. You can sometimes get away from people you don’t like. But you can never get away from you. The cell is supposed to train you to face yourself. It is a mirror. When you’re alone with your yourself, and it’s just you, God, and the four walls, how do you feel? What are the default thoughts that run through your head? What are they? What’s in there, rolling around usually unnoticed? You can drown it out in the busy-ness of your daily life. And maybe with endless Netflix, you’ve managed to drown it out somewhat in quarantine.
But these four walls can be used to examine those thoughts. The desert fathers like St. John Cassian called them logismoi. They are words, thoughts, attitudes, that populate your soul. And they have to be looked at and addressed. And then, by God’s grace, his divine help, they can be healed, purified, and elevated. And evil ones can be eliminated. To do battle with one’s self, primarily with the manifestations of one’s fallen human nature, this is the task that the ancient monks. St. Benedict called such brave people “the race of monks.” These were men (and women) who knew that the cell was the arena of combat with the sinful tendencies in one’s nature. When all the superficial distractions of business and temporary pleasure are stripped away, you’re left alone. And you’re peering into that mirror of the cell. And then you see yourself. Exactly as you are. With no make-up. No accoutrements. No self-deception. And it hurts, usually. You can see the character you’ve forged for yourself up till now. You may have managed to hide it for 20 years, but now you can see it. And oh no! It’s maybe not what you thought it was. This is how the mirror of the cell works. It gives you the gift of self-knowledge.
Second question: what tactics do we employ to avoid peering into this mirror? You know this answer quite well. And it varies from person to person. You can think back and remember how you’ve used the hours of your quarantine so far. Have you consumed entire seasons of Netflix shoes, or things even a little lower down on the internet totem pole that Netflix shows? I’m not saying entertainment is a bad thing! But it has to be used temperately, to give a little relaxation while pursuing something higher fulltime. You can break up your prayer, study, and work with some diversion. But it can’t be all diversion, all the time. We can avoid the mirror by sheer complaint and gossip. Talking constantly about the limits imposed upon us. The monk who says that his room is too dark, or too exposed to the sun, or too low, or to high, or that his pillow is inadequate. We are weak fallen creatures, but we do indulge ourselves by this sort of griping. Talking to friends about a hard time you’re having is good and necessary, but a litany of petty grievances is to be avoided at all costs. Those are all strategies of mirror avoidance.
Third: how can we make the best use of the mirror of the cell during quarantine? The point of this conference, and the mirror of the cell, is not to make you depressed. Don’t become overwhelmed by the negatives in this post. All of the negatives are preparation. Because the point of entering the cell is to expose yourself to divine grace. God intends to help you. God intends, really, to work in you. And to raise you up. The cell is the privileged place of encounter with God. It’s the doctor’s office. You may be uncomfortable in the doctor’s office, but it’s a place of healing. Not going to the doctor when you’re sick is foolish. By entering the doctor’s office, you can become aware that your sick. By actually looking at yourself in this cell of self-knowledge, you can see the work that God has to do. The person who ignores the cell, or wastes her time not using it properly, is like the person who has fatal illness, is unaware of it, and refuses to talk to the doctor. Once you’ve looked into the mirror the cell, using the silence, using the solitude, realizing what you’re like, then you can bring that to God.. And He can do something about it. The work of the spiritual life, of the Catholic Christian and especially monastic life, is about permitting God to work on you.
In conclusion, during quarantine, you have this opportunity to look at yourself in the mirror of your cell. You have this gift of quiet time to take a good, long, hard look at what you’re like. But it’s only a reflection at this moment in time. There’s still time for God to work on you. Your character is only sealed, made permanent at the hour of your death. This life, and especially this quarantine life, is a time when God and you can work on your character. He has promised to come to your assistance, especially if you present yourself to him in your cell.