Rethinking My Cell

In a monastery, the nun’s bedroom is called a cell. I still remember when I was an aspirant making my month long visit within the cloister walls to try out the life of a nun before applying to enter. There were train tracks nearby and so also trains with their plaintive whistles. On my second or third night in my cell, I couldn’t help thinking of Johnny Cash and the Folsom Prison. I wondered if the sound of that train would ever cause me to hang my head and cry for the world outside those locked walls. As it turned out, I eventually got accustomed to the trains so that I hardly noticed them. I think the simplicity and small size of the space is where the similarities of a monastic cell and a prison cell end. Although sometimes the monastic cell has a sink. I even once heard of a monastery that had a toilet in each cell. This way the sisters don't need to go out at night.

A monastic cell is the place in the monastery that a nun has all to herself with the Lord. It is a sacred space of silence for prayer, rest, study and quiet work. Recently I have begun to rethink my relationship with my bedroom here at home. I was not originally thinking so much about trying to give the arrangement of the room a more monastic feel. Its size and the furniture largely prevent that. Although I am trying to be more diligent about following the advice of my first novice mistress to keep it simple and orderly. It really does help my inner space to feel more peaceful when my outer one is neat and tidy. Mostly, however, I was thinking about getting my sleep patterns back in order.

A couple months ago, I threw the monastic horarium or even any attempt at a set schedule to the wind. I think I needed to let myself experience that freedom from outside ideas of how to arrange my day in order to discover my personal balance and priorities. Unfortunately, a tendency toward laziness slowly crept in around the edges. I was finding it more and more difficult to wake up for morning prayer time and eventually was hardly making it to morning Mass on time. It was actually a recent Sunday homily that finally convicted me that I needed to reclaim something of this monastic discipline that I let go. Is sleep really my priority?

Part of why I could not wake up in the morning was that I was not going to bed on time. Sometimes, I was staying up until all hours feverishly writing the first draft of my novel Tillia, but much more often I was simply not going to bed. I would go into my room and then waste an hour or more before getting to sleep. My iPhone greatly facilitated these distractions. My iPhone was another concern I have been having in its own right. I find myself checking it too much. What am I looking for? Can I really find it on the Internet, in an app, or through an email or text message? I put two and two together; my cell and my cell phone are not compatible. In fact, I remembered the practice at the monastery and at the convent was that those who had use of cell phones and laptops avoided bringing them into their cells. The cell is place apart. The sisters are generally forbidden from entering one another's cells. It makes sense that one would not invite in the outside world through electronic devices.

It was surprisingly hard the first night I set my iPhone on the charger by my computer in the kitchen before going to bed. I was expecting a text and found myself making up excuses to return to the kitchen rather than wait until morning. The text had come. I answered, then laughed at myself and made it to bed within the hour I set for going to sleep. I woke up the next morning exactly on time using my clock radio. The experience confirmed how programed I am to snooze at the sound of phone alarm beeping. The annoying chatter of the morning broadcasters got me out of bed (to stop them) and feeling awake enough to pray the Angelus and first hour of the Divine Office prayers before snuggling back under my blankets for an hour of spiritual reading. I find it to be a happy compromise between my mind that is awake and primed for prayer in the early hours of the morning and my body that still wants to be warm in bed. That morning, I was on time for Mass, even a few minutes early, and in a prayerful space internally. It was fabulous.

I have stuck with this schedule for a week and a half now. I am glad to say good night to my phone, which I am generally trying to keep out of my room now, and I have gotten so much holy reading done in the mornings. Depending on that day's Mass time, I have between one and two hours to wake up and get ready with Jesus. My whole day is happier for starting it off with the Lord, and actually I find myself more inclined to spend additional time in meditation or spiritual reading later in the day and less inclined to search for fulfillment on my iPhone or computer. Even my novel writing has benefitted. The ancient tradition of monastics to rise at a particular hour and give the first part of the day to the Lord once again proves to be well founded. It is not always easy to get up exactly at the appointed hour, but I am concretely reminded how much it is worth it and how much happier I am when I can stick with my morning rising time. I'm making better choices all over the place. May God grant me the grace to continue.

Freedom and discipline go together. Just now I am reminded of a favorite quote that has influenced me greatly over the years. Its from Evangelica Testificatio #29 by Pope Paul VI:

Let the Cross be for you as it was for Christ, proof of the greatest love. Is there not a mysterious relationship between renunciation and joy, between sacrifice and magnanimity, between discipline and spiritual freedom?

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