“The monks are to sleep in separate beds. They are to receive bedding as provided by the abbot suitable to monastic life.” RB 22:1-2
The story goes that a disciple in the desert went to his spiritual father and asked “abba, give me a word, and the abba said: ‘go to your cell and your cell will give you a word.’” In other words just go to your cell, your room, and be there. That experience will teach you all you need to know.
In monastic life your cell can teach you a lot and what it teaches you will change over time. Our bedrooms, our “cells,” are very simple. They are small, linoleum floors, a closet, a sink, dresser, chair, bed and small desk. There isn’t really room for anything else. That is the first thing you learn on coming to the monastery: room. How much room do you really need? How much room are you used to having? When there is no room you have to take a look at your life and what you have accumulated prior to coming to this point.
The cell, the bedroom, is simply a metaphor for our whole life. When we have to sort through and get rid of our accumulated stuff the process is simply a tangible version of what we are called to do with our inner life. How can we pare down, simplify, discard anything that is not essential? It isn’t easy, we cling to so many things, interior and exterior. Our stuff, interior and exterior, provides us with the illusion of security. We feel safe when we are surrounded by the things we cling to, whether books or clothes or papers or knickknacks or anything else. It is the same safety, sense of clinging to what we know and are familiar with when we cling to our fears, our anger, our distrust, our patterns of acting. The world is a scary place and we don’t want to give up our security blankets.
When I came to the monastery I brought a couple of suitcases full of clothes, some papers, odds and ends, CD player and a whole pick-up truck full of books. My altruistic justification was that the books would be a good thing for community and therefore they didn’t really count as possessions. Of course the books stayed in the formation room for several years and even now I am surrounded by way too many books.
When I finally moved my books out of the formation room I gave quite a few to the community library and put many of them out on a common table to be “adopted.” It was a process that was much harder than I would have anticipated. I really did feel that people were adopting my books, I wanted to watch each person who took one and demand that they read it and cherish it and take it seriously.
Giving up my books (even if I still have too many) was a deep process of letting go. It made me realize that for me books are what money is to many people. It is a symbol of security, comfort, control. It helps me define my identity. When I gave away my books it was a stripping of some fundamental part of my self.
But monastic life is not about security, it is about trust. We trust that when we enter community having given away most of our possessions we will still have all the things we need. This is the simple, initial lesson of the cell. All the basic things you need will be supplied. But the lesson of the cell calls us deeper. When you come to monastic life you not only give up your possessions, the tangible brick-a-brack accumulated over the years, but eventually you will give up your money, the income, savings, investments and all the security and independence they represent. You will no longer be on your own, self-sufficient and independent, trusting your ability and independence to take you through any challenges.
Monastic life is about being stripped, dependent and trusting in the face of insecurity. The cell, the monastic bedroom is simply a tangible reminder. We cling to so many things. Like the risen Christ who tell Mary Magdalene not to cling to the earthly Jesus we need to let go of all the illusions of security that keep us from coming alone, stripped and vulnerable before God and the incarnation of God which is our community.