Go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Mat. 6:6 (NASB)
According to Henri Nouwen, the chief task of the contemplative is to learn how to enter, and remain, in the solitude of his/her own heart. Without such familiarity with ourselves we will automatically externalize our souls according to whatever other alternatives we seek for our heart’s expression. Nouwen writes,
- We have to fashion our own closet where we can withdraw every day and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord. Without such a place we will lose our own soul, even while preaching the gospels to others.
For the desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries, the equivalent of the closet was the kellion, or cell, in which they lived their lives in isolation, and where they encountered the deeper truth of their relationship with God. The cell was seen as a school, sufficient to teach us all we need for the spiritual life. There is a story of a young monk who came to Father Moses for spiritual advice. Rather than give him counsel, Father Moses simply told the monk to “Go to your cell and sit down, and the cell will teach you everything.”
Anselm Gruen, a contemporary Benedictine monk and author of Heaven Begins Within You, speaks as well of the transformative and educative power of the cell of our own solitude. He affirms Father Moses’ advice regarding the benefits of our “inner room” saying,
- If we stay in our cells something in us will be transformed; we will find order within ourselves. We will come face to face with all the inner chaos that surfaces in us. And we will learn how to not run away from it
Prayer transforms us precisely because it opens the eyes of our heart to the actual truth of who we are, and therefore to the truth of God’s actual relationship with us. For the early monks, encounter with oneself was the precondition for every authentic encounter with God. And stabilitas—the constancy of holding on, and staying with oneself—was the prerequisite for every kind of human and spiritual progress.
A growing capacity to find peace with our selves, in spite of all the impulses to flee, is perhaps the main discipline we learn from solitude. That is why the ancient fathers stressed the importance of holding out and not running away from our solitude. Anselm Gruen writes,
- Remaining in one’s cell, keeping to oneself, is the necessary condition for both spiritual progress and maturation as a human being. The tree must send down roots to be able to grow. Continual uprooting and transplanting only blocks its development. One cannot be a mature person without the courage to hold out and meet one’s own truth head on.
We are to resist the temptation to flee from prayer. If we stay in our cell, we will grow in our true sense of what reality is. We will no longer be fooled by pretensions, either about ourselves or our relationship with God. Gruen writes of his own experience, saying,
- When everything is taken away from me and I really sit in all simplicity before God, at first everything is boring. I start suspecting that everything I’ve been thinking or saying about God doesn’t add up. But if I weather this feeling, if I don’t immediately worry about being able to find something meaningful, but simply stay put, then something moves within me, and I suddenly find myself touching the truth. The truth is at first relentless, but it also sets us free.
The prayerful acceptance of “what is” heals us from our inordinate impatience with life—the very thing that keeps us in such a restless state. There is a desert wisdom that states, “Cella est valetudinarium,” meaning the cell is an infirmary, a place where the sick can get better. Gruen adds,
- It is a place of wholeness, a place for healing, because we sense God’s loving and healing nearness there. But I can have this positive experience of the cell only if I stay there even when everything in me rebels against it, when I am full of unrest. Once I have overcome this first phase, then I can begin to experience the cell as heaven.
Jesus’ invitation in John 15 is for us to simply “remain in His love.” When we consider the many trivial reasons for which we often stray from this love we can see the importance of learning how to remain with God in the secret place of our heart. There, we will meet the truth head on. And there we will find the way that leads beyond the illusions of impatience, to a growing acceptance of our real relationship with God.
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
written for Oct. 7th, 2010
1. Solitude is both inviting and repellant to us. Describe your experience of movement between extreme restlessness and repose in the practice of solitude.
2. What illusions about life and our relationship to God do we trend toward in the absence of the intentional practice of solitude? What realities might surface and stabilize us as we stay in solitude before God?
3. What healing might you seek from God through perseverance in prayer and solitude?
Jesus, we thank you for your precious invitation to remain in your love. May we seek you and find you by staying with our practice of solitude, and may we be continually reminded of the constancy of your love, both in solitude and in community.