Daily Meditations

The Cell, Meeting God and Ourselves (Part VII)

The monk’s experience of God in the cell occurred in a variety of ways, but the role of meditation on the Scriptures, the Word of God, was central. The Bible was central, but not as an end in itself. It provided a monk, through meditation, with opportunities to encounter the Spirit in prayer for personal guidance and discernment, not simply as “knowledge,” but as encounter. “For interpretation of the Bible, the imperative is to probe beyond the letter and history to the spiritual mysteries (sacramenta) within, to get under the skin of the text and live inside it so that the biblical words become one’s own spiritual bones, sinews, and flesh.” [33] This understanding of Scripture as “personal encounter” reflects the thought and experience of Origen of Alexandria. As we have seen, he taught that within a person’s recitation of and meditation on Scripture a grace is present through which that person is led beyond the meanings of the words to experience the divine Presence unique to that person’s experience. [34]

The monks in Egypt had access to the Bible in their own Coptic language and would have heard Scripture in the liturgy and in the teaching of their mentors. They were able to memorize great portions of Scripture and many of those who were illiterate were taught to read. In the same way that the Bible was not an end in itself for prayer and meditation, it was never divorced from the pastoral and practical activities of daily life:

“The silence and solitude of the desert, for instance, which so clearly revealed the hidden motivations of the heart, focused the attention of the desert fathers upon moral, ascetical, and psychological questions in a particularly acute ”lay. The practical orientation of the desert fathers means that interpretation of Scripture in the Sayings almost never occurs for its own sake but is imbedded in the life and concerns of the desert.” [35]

In this way, the Bible was an integral part of the personal transformation that took place in the cell. One could say that the Bible was part of the mystical “topos” of the cell and led the monk to contemplate his or her true “content” as a human being.

“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3-4, NRSV). “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16, NRSV).

In summary, the cell restores a monk, or any person, to true humanity that embodies God’s presence. By turning to God as our true Source and content (by receiving the Other), we are disposed, by choice, to be compassionate to all others. The practicalities of daily life must be interwoven with the resurrected life we seek. Thus, the cell, whose integrity and environmental influence must be guarded, does not reject either the body or society. Rather, the cell is the place where each person learns to embody truth and the presence of God. By turning away from the self-serving control of the ego, we become open to grace, which lies beyond our control, yet teaches us who we really are. The cell is the place where one experiences authentic humanity and learns of God’s desires.

~David G.R. Keller, Oasis of Wisdom: the Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

33. Columba Stewart, O.S.B., Cassian the Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 85.

34. See Joseph Milne, The Ground of Being: Foundations of Christian Mysticism (London: Temenos Academy, 2004) 29.

35. Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 61.