The beginning of a new school year is usually a time for us to get together in person: meeting new students and catching up with those we know and haven’t seen for a while. This year, of course, is different. Most of you are either at home or experiencing some version of quarantine.
Especially if you’re mostly confined to the place where you live, it’s tempting to think of this as something to wait out. If that’s the approach, it’s easy to become preoccupied with passing the time: reading books, playing games, watching movies. Anything that will occupy the time.
But how about using the time--actually using it rather than occupying it?
We’re calling this series The Conferences, in homage to a spiritual classic composed by John Cassian in the fifth century. In each of these 24 conferences, he sits down with an older, more experienced monk--these were given the title of Abba (“Father”)--who imparts some important lesson about Christian living, especially relevant for an aspiring monk. True, we’re not monks, but we are living in a time that probably feels more monastic than anyone might have expected.
In addition to Cassian’s conferences, there’s another great collection of brief passages, simply known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. These are not extended discourses, but brief quotations with the same purpose. Here’s one:
A brother went to Abba Moses to ask for a word of advice on living the monastic life. Moses replied, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
What, exactly, is a cell? It’s where the monk lives and spends most of his waking hours. He might go out in the fields to work and to the church to pray with other monks, but the better part of his time alone is spent in his cell.
Fun fact: The biological units that we call cells got their name because Robert Hooke, when he saw them under a microscope, they reminded him of the small rooms in monasteries where monks lived. But I digress.
But I digress. Anyhow....Abba Moses says one of the basic tasks of the monk is to sit in his cell. If you’re back on campus, perhaps you’re stuck in your room. If you’re at home, maybe you’re spending a lot of time in your room. Maybe this isn’t where you’d like to be, but it’s not wasted time. For better or for worse, there’s going to be less to do this semester outside of your room. How can you make the most of it?
Your cell will teach you everything. Why? Because the cell is the most private place a monk has, his particular tendencies and inclinations are most visible. Is he messy or neat? Does he spend more time reading, or writing? Does he like the window open or closed?
Pay attention to where you live, and make a home out of it. Here are a few suggestions:
Keep it orderly. This doesn't mean it needs to be meticulously clean, but keeping it in order helps. Make your bed in the morning. Organize the books on your shelf.
Carve out a space for prayer. If you're in a single this year, it might be easier to do this. Make a corner of your room as beautiful as you can. If you have a crucifix, or an icon, put it up on the wall. Keep a Bible nearby. Spend some time during the day to pray here.
Limit your screen time. The screens that pervade our lives are the window of a monk's cell. They can let some light in, but if a monk spent all of his time looking out the window, it would defeat the purpose of being in his cell.
Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.