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.”