“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything”
It was hot. Really hot. I scrunched my body as tight as I could against the rock wall behind me and into the little bit of shade the boulders provided.
Cynthia had sent us out into the Sonoran desert with very simple instructions: we were to find a spot, draw a circle around ourselves and sit there. No books, no journal. No “plan” for a meaningful affective experience. Just sit for a morning and see what wisdom would offer us. The Desert Fathers and Mothers had lived in similar harsh conditions, with the arid desert topography of rocky harsh landscapes and the silence of solitude. They lived in small cave dwellings, or human-made lean-to’s with woven reeds for roofs. The monastic “cell” represented the entire locale of their transformation: where they prayed, ate, slept, and worked…day in and day out. “Sit in your cell…and it will teach you everything,” said Abba Moses. So in classic Cynthia fashion, we were out in one of her mischievous experiments to see what would happen when we accepted the constriction of one particular desert corner for a morning.
Of course being the aesthetically inclined ascetic that I am, I didn’t want just any little desert corner. Oh no. I had the brilliant idea of bouldering up the face of a cliff to a little ledge so that my “circle” would essentially be conveniently boundaried by the straight drop down and nothing but air. Only problem was that I hadn’t judged the movement of the sun adequately, realizing a little too late that I’d be up in my little eagle’s nest baking in the full morning heat of the desert sun.
You just had to have a “cell” with a view, didn’t you? I muttered to myself.
A breeze kicked up almost in response to my complaint, and between that and draping a shirt between two rocks above me, I was able to keep my Scottish skin from being burned to a crisp or of being in any real danger of heatstroke.
I wouldn’t say it was comfortable, but after a while I began to accept it…I was, after all in the desert. This was not the place for comfort.
I sat there….and did…nothing. For a while my brain did gymnastics across the rocks, picking all the spots I should have climbed to sit in. I watched the crows circle and let my thoughts drift to Narnia and back in the space of a minute. I watched other little colorful dots below—other students (my glasses had been left behind as superfluous decadence of metropolitan excess)—find their spot, draw their circles and sit . After rating their spots I started connecting them in random geometric shapes in my mind…like stars, I tried to see how many constellations I could build from my birds-eye-view of their locations. Eventually—and I have no idea how long the “eventually” was—I grew bored with my mind’s rambling and something in me sunk in deeper into myself…and I finally just…sat.
I sat there, until I stopped thinking about how “well” I was doing the assignment of sitting. I sat until my legs fell asleep and it no longer bothered me. I sat there until I forgot that I was sitting there, and yet not for a second forgetting. It was as if my interior attention eventually replicated my exterior, finally settling into my heart…and began really seeing.
The desert cell is a place that strips away all that is unnecessary, returning us to our birthright in the raw gift of being. After a while (once I had sunk beneath my mental chatter), I could sense myself as part of the whole landscape. No longer separate as if all of creation were the revolving staged backdrop around the soliloquy of my life, I found my being as inextricable from the being around me. As I let go of time, I could feel the great lumbering ancient age of the earth, the vastness of this journey of life in evolution, infinite, terrifying…the I AM of it all. And when this realization threatened to engulf “me”, the tiny little me sitting on ledge in a cliff, I suddenly and simultaneously became aware of the intimacy….the Thou speaking itself with infinite tenderness in the rocks that seemed to want to cradle me from the steep drop below, in the crows that cawed to me like disapproving Spanish mothers, in the playfulness of the small little curious bugs that crawled over my leg...in the bead of sweat that—just then—made its way down the side of my face, as if the universe itself couldn’t hold back a caress.
Vast and immanent. Terrifying and tender. The burning bush that doesn’t burn itself up. An infinite love somehow is made more visible through all this particularity, like light shinning through the myriad of colors of the fragile glass of our finite realm.
Ironically, the “lines” of my cell were precisely what allowed all the “lines” of division to drop out of my vision entirely. I became the life of the desert and the desert life lived itself into me. There was no longer a separation in my field of vision between the “cell” of my “self” and everything else either. Between the “I” and “thou” was only pure intimacy—an ever present relationality, always available, an infinite well of being and belonging…of love itself.
I think of Teilhard, having been more or less exiled for years to the deserts of China…was there something about the solitude of his work in barren landscapes that allowed him to see the shape of life-in-evolution so clearly? To taste this relational Love-within-all things? I read his words in The Spiritual Power of Matter and I know that somehow his exile in the forbidding landscapes were integral in what “had forever withdrawn his heart from all that is merely local or individual, all that is fragmentary, henceforth for him it alone in its totality would be his father and mother, his family…his unique, consuming passion.”
What else but years in the desert and the quiet resignation to his “constriction” could have yielded what was purest in Teilhard's own becoming? Wasn’t it the conscious acceptance of his“cell”—the way he yielded with love (again and again) to the anguishing challenges and limitations he endured in his life—the very fodder that ultimately produced the vision that could heal the ancient division he sought to reconcile between matter and spirit?
At the end of that week in the Sonoran, I did what we tend to do at the end of a time of revelation: nervously anticipate my crash landing back home and pre-emptively freak out. I wailed in exasperation during a group discussion: “Its fine and good to be out here experiencing this…but what about when we go home??? I really do want to sell everything and give it all away...But how do I do that when I’m a mom? When I am constrained by the relationships that depend on me???” Cynthia answered me gently:
“Whatever your external circumstances always be inwardly free. And remember that you have agency…and your life is made by your choices.”
I didn’t like her answer at the time. I mean, its not like I was going to choose to abandon my children and literally become a monk (although I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve threatened to do so). And I certainly didn’t feel inwardly free, roiling as I was with my youthful passionate nature and the classic victimization that accompany a view of life as something that happens to you, instead of something you participate in and flow with…an endless and ever-present well of potentiality for new creation, new possibilities, change, and transformation.
But just as my cell on the cliff gave me a taste of an undivided heart and field of vision, over time the “cell” of my life offered insight to Cynthia’s words. By slowly learning to accept the circumstances of my constrictions as a choice I am learning how to see the discomfort of the constriction as the very thing that began wearing down some of those internal divisions within me. And as those divisions have worn down, I’ve discovered different ones that needed reconciling and thus the “walls” of my cell have shifted.
Like the edges of the round boulders softened by the sands of time, there is within each of us a work that is taking place everytime we consciously accept the constrictions of our present circumstances. We are not passive observes of the movie of life, but actively co-participants, co-chemists in the alchemy of transformation, always being given the option to accept what makes up the edges of the cell we will live into for this season. It should therefore come as no surprise to us that what shapes each of our “cells” for a season will change as we become less divided ourselves.
What is the cell of your life right now? The particular set of constrictions that you can choose to consciously accept as the ground of your transformation?
If you choose to accept your cell, evolutionary… remember that it’s a choice. Allow that choice to become what I'd like to think is a wager on Love. Accept the constriction with gratitude as that which is keeping you awake, alert, and wearing down the lines of the division within your heart …until you yourself become undivided and can see everything, everything as an opportunity for transformation, for new possibilities, for more life.
Who knows what the womb of this cell will yield in your life...and in this world?
Sit in your cell. It will teach you everything.
I’ll be right there with you, in a nearby cell.
(Or, above in a perch on a cliff… as the case may be.)