Friday, February 6, 2015

Go Sit in Your Cell

"Mountain Cave"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House-

The towering mountains surrounding my desert home are peppered with caves - most of them about the size of a small room. The 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers used to live in desert caves like these - they called their little caves, "cells." 

Those ancient Christian monastics lived a simple life in community with one another out at the fringes of society and at the edge of the organized church of their day, doing their best to follow the way of love that Jesus pointed out; and I hail these Desert Mothers and Fathers as my spiritual ancestors.

When I was a young priest (at the time knowing very little about the desert monks), I was always perplexed whenever I would come across some of their ancient teachings, especially the one where the young monk asks his mentor for advice about how to follow the "way" of the gospels,  and the old abba tells him:

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

It just never made sense to me, how could sitting in a hot little cave in the middle of a desert in Egypt teach you "everything?" I always believed that in order to learn you had to read and study- the more you studied, the more you learned. When I wanted to learn something I would read a theology book or listen to a lecture. So how could anyone learn something, and more than that, how could anyone learn "everything" by just sitting in a "cell?"

It wasn't until my later years that I began to understand the meaning of this, and in fact it wasn't until I began exploring Buddhist wisdom that I finally got what this Christian teaching meant. Interestingly enough, the Zen masters often gave the exact same advice to their young novices seeking a way of enlightenment as did the desert monks. I particularly like this one Zen story:

A student asked the teacher, 'What is the true Way?' The teacher answered, 'The everyday way is the true Way,' to which the student responded, 'Can I study it?' The teacher sat quietly and responded. 'The more you study it, the further you will be from the Way.'

Now confused, the student asked the master, 'But if I don't study it, how can I know it?'  And the master answered, 'The Way does not belong to things seen, not to things unseen. It does not belong to things known, nor to things unknown. Do not seek it, study or name it. 

To find yourself on it, open yourself as wide as the sky.

I have now come to understand that I can't think my way into "God." I can't study my way into wisdom or analyze my way into transcendence. I must just sit quietly and listen, awake and alert with a clear mind, and a heart open as wide as the sky, and wisdom will come to me.

Every day I look at those little "cells" that surround my desert home, I hear them calling out to me: "Go sit in your cell, sit in your room or sit in your office, sit on a rock or sit in your garden, go walk on a trail or stand in a supermarket -  and listen." 

Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom" 

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding! ...Thank you for this.