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The Cell and Solitude – Br. David Vryhof


Lenten Preaching Series: A Framework for Freedom

SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter Twenty-Six: The Cell and Solitude

This evening we conclude a Lenten sermon series based on our Rule of Life by focusing on Chapter 26, “The Cell and Solitude.”  In the opening lines of that chapter, we read

The Father of all whom we seek to love is a hidden God.  Therefore we take to heart the words of Jesus, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The cell is the place of this secret encounter and reward.1

The cell – or any place where we withdraw to meet God in prayer – is a place of “secret encounter and reward.”  Here we come to know God, and to know ourselves.  Here we come to learn to recognize the voice of God, and to distinguish that voice from countless other voices that clamor for our attention. Here we come to recognize our disordered attachments, to do battle with our most persistent temptations, and to grow in the virtues of obedience, humility and love.  “The cell is the primary place of prayer where we are to stand before God,” our Rule says.2

There is an ancient saying which encouraged monks to remain in their cells, even when they were bored or distracted or tempted to do something that seemed more useful.  Remain in your cell, they were told, because “the cell will teach you all things.”3  We need encouragement to go to this place of “secret encounter and reward” and to remain there with God because there are so many pressures and temptations that deter us from experiencing solitude and tasting its rewards.  The Rule of our Society names three of them:

First, it says, there are “the claims of work.”  How many of us fall prey to the temptation to allow our work to dominate our lives.  How easy it is to give in to the pressures of a fast-paced, results-oriented society where more is better and where productivity and busyness are signs of one’s importance and value.  (I speak as one who knows this temptation too well.)

Second, there is “the fear of loneliness.”  Loneliness is part of the human condition.  No matter how much we are loved by others, we will all, at certain times, experience our aloneness.  It may be when we are faced with a problem that no one can solve for us, or with a crucial decision that no one can make for us.  Certainly we experience it at the moment of death; no one can accompany us to the other side.  At times we experience our loneliness even in the company of others.  If we are afraid to be alone, we will do all that we can to avoid solitude.

Third, there is “the reluctance to face ourselves as we are.”  In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness.  We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental ; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions.  No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions.  It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.

And yet, in order for us to become the persons we were meant to be, we need the gifts that come to us in solitude.  Solitude is not just a time and place where we can escape once in a while in order not to be bothered by others or to think our own thoughts.  It is not just a time and place to recharge our batteries or to gather new strength for the ongoing struggle of life.  It is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born and grows.  In this place of conversion, we come to see and acknowledge who we truly are in Christ as beloved children of God.  In this place of conversion, the dark voices of anger, jealousy, resentment, lust and greed lose their power and are gradually replaced with gentler voices of contentment, peace and love.  Here the illusions and deceptions of the world and its values are exposed and we learn to follow the way of Jesus, imitating his compassion, his hunger for justice, and his total dedication to God.  In this place of conversion, we are united with Christ and become one with him.  In this place of conversion, we grow into his likeness.

In solitude we become more present to ourselves and to God.  Paradoxically, we can also become more present to others.  Solitude does not pull us away from our fellow human beings but rather makes it possible for us to enjoy deeper communion with them.  Few people have expressed this more clearly than Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the 20th century who lived the last years of his life as a hermit.  On January 12, 1950, he wrote in his diary:

It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers.  The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them.  It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others.4

The affection and reverence Merton felt for his brothers he also felt for the world.  Henri Nouwen describes Merton in this way:

The paradox of Merton’s life indeed is that his withdrawal from the world brought him into closer contact with it.  The more he was able to convert his restless loneliness into a solitude of heart, the more he could discover the pains of his world in his own inner center and respond to them.  His compassionate solidarity with the human struggle made him a spokesman for many…5

For many of us, it may be difficult to find times and places where we can be alone.  Merton complained that even life in a Trappist monastery did not offer him enough opportunities for the pure contemplation he sought.  One difficulty was that the monastery was simply too busy, too active:

For it seems to me (he wrote) that our monasteries produce very few pure contemplatives.  The life is too much active.  There is too much movement, too much to do.  This is especially true at Gethsemani (the Trappist monastery in Kentucky in which he lived).6

We brothers can relate.  We struggle, as many of you do, to maintain a healthy balance in our lives, and to find adequate time and space for solitary prayer and contemplation.

It is difficult to achieve a contemplative stillness without at least some separation from others.  But if the truth be told, not many of us have either the desire or the opportunity or the constitution to live as hermits, as Merton eventually did.  It is important, then, to recognize — as Henri Nouwen puts it — that “the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart.”7

The solitude of heart is “an inner quality or attitude,” says Nouwen, “that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd, and in the context of a very active and productive life.  A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center.”8

This solitude of heart we see in Mary, whom we remember on this feast day.  We recall how readily she received the angel’s message, and see in her a heart prepared to receive God’s call.  We recall how she treasured the mystery of the Divine Revelation in her heart, contemplating its meaning and its profound implications, not just for her but for the world.  Mary shows us how to live as active contemplatives in the world.  She is able “to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center” because she “has developed this solitude of heart.”

Some time ago I read a book entitled, The Hermitage Within.  Ever since reading that book, the image of “a hermitage within” has had profound significance for me.  I believe the experience of solitude allows us to gradually build within our hearts a hermitage where we can dwell in union with God, even in the midst of busy lives.  We still need times of solitude apart from others when we can shore up the foundations of this “hermitage within” and deepen our sense of connection with God there.  But we can also carry this hermitage within us, and learn to abide in it as we converse and interact with others, and as we carry out God’s work in the world.

Seek the gifts that come from time with God Alone.  Develop this inner quality of solitude of heart.  Learn to abide in the hermitage within.  Love your cell.  “The cell will teach you all things.”


1 The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist; (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 199_), p.


2  Ibid.


3 Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers; (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 66.


4 Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas; (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Image Books, 1956), p. 261.


5 Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life; (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975), p. 42.


6 Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain; (New York: Signet Books, 1952), p. 382.


7 Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life; (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975), p.25.


8  Ibid.



  1. SusanMarie on October 30, 2017 at 10:12

    I have read this sermon several times since it was posted the other day. It speaks deeply to my soul and I needed time to reflect on its meaning in my life. As an introvert, I spend most of my days in silence, beginning with at least an hour of prayer, devotion, spiritual reading and centering prayer in the early morning. This time has become increasingly essential to my day; grounding myself in God, through Whom I live and move and have my being. As an introvert, all this comes naturally and comfortably to me. I take long walks and runs, sit by the lakes and streams and rivers near me, losing myself in nature and connecting with God (of course I do have times when the “stuff” of the world takes over my thoughts). Again, this comes naturally to me and it’s also partly a choice. So when reading this sermon, I was reminded of three times in the last year or so when I found myself struggling because I was alone not by choice and began to feel agitated and fearful. I felt unproductive in my aloneness when I was sick, frightened by a long evening ahead without someone or something to occupy my time, a sleepless night recently when I struggled with being alone and lonely (even with my husband sleeping by my side). I spend a great deal of time with aging people, the widowed, alone, frail, and frightened. At age 57, I realized I was projecting myself into a possible experience of their reality.

    **The cell is where we come to know God, and to know ourselves.  Here we come to learn to recognize the voice of God, and to distinguish that voice from countless other voices that clamor for our attention. Here we come to recognize our disordered attachments, to do battle with our most persistent temptations, and to grow in the virtues of obedience, humility and love. The cell is the primary place of prayer where we are to stand before God.**

    Reading those words made me realize the truth of the words that closely followed: “Remain in your cell, they were told, because ‘the cell will teach you all things.’”

    Amen and thank you.

  2. Pamela Forbes on October 28, 2017 at 11:33

    Thanks be to God for retirement and old age! Solitude, filled with prayer and reading are gifts of immense value in my spiritual journey.

  3. Harriet on October 28, 2017 at 05:46

    I find my times of being alone more and more comfortable. It has taken age and mental work to enjoy and look forward to my solitude. Daily I am blessed with quiet time where I learn to pray. It is a gift. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  4. Marta Engdahl on July 31, 2016 at 07:15

    This sermon helps me realize that I am blessed with old age, and with solitude. Thank you, God, for these blessings. They give me time to not only contemplate, but to share with others in prayer the many blessings we receive constantly. Life now is meditation, and constant prayer. Thank you.

  5. Kathleen on July 30, 2016 at 20:29

    As a stay at home mom with two small children and a husband, it is difficult for me to find time for solitude and contemplation. I have begun to discover however that inner solitude of heart that is always there. When I feel myself being torn in too many directions, and sometimes the feeling is a very real physical feeling, I have learned to put down what I am doing and just breathe, just BE, even if it is just for a few seconds, and bring myself back to this moment.

  6. Grace Koolmon on July 30, 2016 at 13:05

    I believe that solitude is a gift from God. I experience it everyday and I feel the presence of Jesus. Solitude is a healing process where God himself comes to talk to us. Thank you Lord for staying with us, for making us feel your presence. We can see your light through solitude. Amen

  7. Bonnie Hill on July 30, 2016 at 12:02

    Thank you Brother David. Beautiful words.

  8. Sally Baynton on July 30, 2016 at 07:43

    This solitude is what my soul yearns for; and, I am getting better and better at giving it to it! Loved these words!

  9. Edward Cobden on July 30, 2016 at 07:36

    Solitude is the gift God and I give each other to be alone. We can “lean” into each other. To speak and hear each other. It is, as St. John taught us, to listen to the heart beat of God. To share concerns, to rejoice together, to yearn, cry and hope together.

  10. Paul on April 4, 2016 at 13:32

    I thank God that, in retirement and living alone, I can spend all the time I want in solitude; and I do love my solitude. I am never lonely. My heart burns with gratitude today.

  11. a city monk on April 4, 2016 at 11:56

    More and more, I find myself turning to Mary to teach my heart to be a hermitage for pondering as she knows so well. In these days following Easter, the Resurrection of her Son… did she then reveal to the Apostles the Infant Narratives for the Gospels… those ponderings of 33 years. Such a hermitage as hers grows from the inside and eventually, God willing, may be as large as a cell! Perhaps that is what is so shared by Mary and John! Did Mary share the years of pondering in silence and the solitude of her hermitage of the heart with John in their days together?
    I can’t help but think of John as an Archetypal best friend of the Bridegroom… companioned now with Mary… 50 days to Pentecost! Was the upper room, a cell in the monastic sense? Were the Apostles gathered together with Mary who knew more than anyone the Good News… Her very body having held the Mystery of Redemption…
    inhale very
    exhale grateful
    inhale love
    exhale gratitude

  12. Mary Hoose on April 4, 2016 at 11:50

    Wonderful words of wisdom!

  13. Rhode on April 4, 2016 at 08:31

    In this 21st century of washing machines, rhoombas, self cleaning ovens, computers I do find myself, at 62, in pre-retirement having early morning hours for contemplation, reading scripture, prayer, gleaning from crops i did not have to sow. My child has left the nest. I am not having to beat my husbands shirts on the rocks or make the morning breads. (very mindful of people who still do). I do not have to. What a great and luxurious gift to have this solitude to speak to God, read about Him or just being still and knowing He is God …and I can be me.

  14. Ferial on April 4, 2016 at 03:48

    I know how difficult it is to face oneself in solitude. Yet I can’t help feeling that in solitude it can be easier to love ‘the world’ when one doesn’t actually have to be immersed in it i.e. bothered by all its messiness. I believe that true solitude has to be found in the everyday and if we “abide in me [Jesus]” then that solitude can be an interior thing in the midst of noise and activity.

  15. Page on October 12, 2015 at 08:44

    thank-you for sharing this sermon. I hadn’t had time to sit and read these or even listen to them. I started working again and my spiritual time has been push aside. I knew it, and I was even typing a work email while I started to listen to this sermon. I realize within a few minutes I needed to stop what I was doing and be one with the sermon. I found peace, solitude just being in the presence Br. David’s words. I will work on making more alone time with me and God. Peace Be With You All.

  16. Ruth West on October 7, 2015 at 00:12

    Br. David, I am reminded of the psalm which says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
    I like this sermon. Thanks for stirring my conscience on this subject. I am too often busy and distracted. I need more “solitude of the heart,” and find when I allow the Spirit to dwell within and speak above my own voice, I truly know that He is God.

  17. Bob Church on October 6, 2015 at 21:13

    As an former seminarian I remember the joy of contemplation (now 50 years in the past).Your article summoned me back to this practice. Bless you!

  18. Christopher Engle Barnhart on October 6, 2015 at 10:05

    To me the greatest gift we,are given is time in solitude. Time to contemplate. To look into our soul. To search within. To reflect. To listen to that small still voice.

  19. anders on October 6, 2015 at 09:59

    Thank you, wonderful reflections. I feel guilty of outsourcing my spiritual thinking to priests and spiritual listening to brothers, but recognize that I have strong hermitage within and solitude of the heart to draw from, and it is good.

  20. Gary Davis on October 6, 2015 at 09:34


  21. Michael on October 6, 2015 at 08:31

    To find the balance between the need for solitude and the company of others is a struggle I share with many. To face our deepest self in the company of God makes many demands. Courage, honesty, patience to name a few. There is comfort in knowing others struggle as well

  22. Randy on October 6, 2015 at 08:12

    Thank you for this sermon and the thoughts that go with it. It brings back memories and my need to re read “The Cloud of Unknowing “and Dark Night Of The Soul”


  23. Barbara Williamson on April 1, 2012 at 23:08

    Thank you so much for this sermon. I looked on Amazon for the book you mention, “the Hermitage within”. I see two books, either of which could be the one you cite. One is The Hermitage Within (Cistercian Studies Series) by Alan Neame (Jan 1999). The other is Hermitage within: Spirituality of the Desert by A Monk (Oct 1977). Could you help me to distinguish which is the book to which you refer? No need to answer here. I will be at SSJE for holy week beginning Tuesday. Thanks so much.
    All blessings,
    Barbara Williamson

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