Daily Meditations

Staying by Oneself (Part II)

The inner attitude with which monks are supposed to sit in their cells is described by another elder in a drastic image: “When you dwell in the desert as a hesychast [a person who practices quietistic meditation], don’t imagine that you are doing something great. Instead, think of yourself as a dog that has been driven away from the crowd and tied up because he bites and bothers people.” The monks do not remain sitting in their cells because they think they are better than the men and women in the world. Rather they withdraw into their cells in order to protect the world from themselves. They are working on a sort of environmental protection for the mind. On the small site of their cells they do waste removal for the world by cleaning up anger and resentment. That way they create a purer atmosphere, an atmosphere of love and compassion.

The monks knew about the dangers of distraction. There is also spiritual distraction, a state where one runs through many thoughts about God and spiritual life. But with all those thoughts one never really touches God. Remaining in one’s cell, keeping to oneself, is the necessary condition for both spiritual progress and maturation as a human being. One cannot be a mature person without the courage to hold out and meet one’s own truth head on. A story told about one of the fathers compares staying in one’s cell to smooth water in which one can more clearly make out one’s face:

“Three students who loved each other became monks, and each one of them undertook a good work. The first one had this story: he wanted to get disputants to make peace, in keeping with the words of Scripture: Blessed are the peacemakers. The second wished to visit the sick; the third went into the desert to live there quietly. The first monk, who worked with those who had quarreled, couldn’t reconcile them all. Filled with despondency, he went to the second, who served the sick, and found that he too was depressed; for he too had failed to carry out his intentions completely. So they both agreed to look up the third, who had gone off into the desert. They told him about their problems and asked him to tell them frankly what he had achieved. He was silent for a while; then he poured some water into a vessel and told them to look in. But the water was still churned up. After a while he again had them look in and said: ‘Now observe how placid the water has become.’ They looked in and saw their faces as if in a mirror. Then he said: ‘That is how it is with those who dwell among people: because of all the unrest and confusion they can’t see their sins. But those who stay quiet, especially in solitude, will soon catch sight of their errors.”

This is not meant to condemn love of one’s neighbor. Rather the story points to the danger that may lurk in the wish to help others: we imagine that we can help the whole world. However, that is often a cover for a feeling of omnipotence. In all that we do there still remains, as always, the need for perseverance, for remaining in one’s cell, and keeping silence. That makes the water in the vessel calm and smooth, and we can recognize our truth in it.

Remaining in one’s cell is supposed to lead to two results: self-knowledge and complete concentration on God. “Father Anthony said: ‘It is very good for us to seek refuge in our cell, and to reflect a great deal about ourselves during our life, until we learn what sort of persons we are. If you persevere in your cell, then you pay attention to your death. If you pray constantly night and day, then you will await your death.'”

A brother asked Anthony: “How should one remain sitting in one’s cell, my father?” The old man answered: “What people can see is the fasting till evening, every day, the vigils, and meditation. But what remains hidden to men and women is the contempt of oneself, the struggle against evil thoughts, gentleness, the contemplation of death and the humility of the heart, the foundation of all that is good.”

~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers