Anthony of Egypt is a saint of the 4th century who went off into the dessert in order to be alone with God. Many consider him a founder of what we now call Christian monasticism. The word monasticism comes from “monos” or “alone” and implies that we are indeed alone with God when we enter into our “cell” to pray or think. And of course, the prison system borrowed the word “cell” from monasticism as a place to be alone and think about one’s life regardless if the prisoner considered God to be present in that or not.
I recently met with a considerable collection of Bishops at a retreat of the House of Bishops. I also recently met with a large number of clergy on a retreat and will, again today join a clergy retreat for a few days. The thing I notice is that Bishops and clergy often and easily underestimate the incredibly powerful gift the laity have to discern quickly who prays and who pretends to pray. God seems to have downloaded this powerful human app to detect inauthenticity, especially around piety. Some powerfully manipulative people can prey on the weak. I still have trouble getting images from the Jim Jones cult mass suicide out of my head. But generally, I notice that there seems to be this wonderful magical and mystical gift for detecting spiritual fraud.
Going into one’s cell, whether in a monastery or in the corner of a suburban bedroom is dangerous and powerful work. Priests are not better at this work – they just, perhaps talk more about it. And it is easy to be christianish the way I am yoga-ish. I love the idea of yoga. I swoon at those who practice and I have a mat and blocks and cushions and even a yoga outfit. The problem is that I am passionate about yoga without actually doing the work or yoga. Silly boy.
The work around limiting beliefs by Byron Katie with which our friend Caitlin Frost will be helping the cathedral over the next few years within the work of the committee on The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversation (which will be a focus of the cathedral’s October 11th Dream Together Conference) is pivotal to the life of prayer. When we face our pain-producing thoughts and deal with them by asking The Four Questions and the Turnaround ( see Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is) then we deal with negative thoughts without kindness – tough love – asking “Is it true?” Can you be absolutely sure that it is true?” “How do you react when you think that though?” “Who would you be without that though?” — these questions make space on the hard-drive of my life the way emptying my computer’s track can open a massive space for new, fresh, true, good, creative thoughts.
And that space, having let go of some of the programs running in my head, is the cell in which I find a tidy corner for my hour of prayer and my hour of thought which forms the center of my Rule of Life. I no longer have a cell in a monastery. But the cell I have begun to clear in my soul is good enough.