The desert saints used to say, "Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything you need to know." The idea was that the temptations a monk faced within his cell--laziness, lust, greed--and the pains that could be found therein--hunger, thirst, loneliness--would teach him to rely fully on God for his sustenance and salvation. Isolation served, for the Abbas and Ammas of the desert, and for their faithful followers, as a teaching tool that helped them to truly prize communion with Christ above all other things. In later monastic movements, this led to the notion, popular among some, that the monastic (and especially the cloistered) life was preferable to the every day life of the laity. This idea is actually contrary to what the desert monks would have said. While they would probably recommend the monastic life for all, they also would recognize that the life the monks of the desert led was essential for the lives lived by the laity, and vice versa. If all were monks who prayed in their cells all day, how would any have food to eat? If everyone worked in the fields without regard to prayer, how would we have the deep teachings of those who had spent much time with God?
The first real lesson of the early Abbas and Ammas is that it takes both work and prayer to make life work. For we who live in the 21st century, it is essential that we see this as a call for each of us to be engaged in both of these activities--recognizing that there will still be people who will do only one or the other, or who will major in either work or prayer while devoting a small portion of time to the other activity. For you and me, though, it's a call to "pray without ceasing," in the sense that we should bathe ourselves in prayer each day so that everything we ultimately do is a part of our prayer life. This pattern reminds me of the Iona community of Scotland, who begin their day with prayer, but do not end the prayer service with a benediction. Instead, the service ends at the point where you might expect the sermon, followed by the offering. At the end of the day, the service picks up essentially where it left off, and ends with the benediction. In this way, the day of work becomes worship...our daily activities become our daily bread, dedicated to God, and consecrated for the use of others for edification and witness.
The second lesson I think we need to learn from the desert saints is that we all need a cell. Notice that I didn't say we all need something to isolate us from others. We already do this in many ways in our modern Western culture. What we all need is a cell-- a place where we can go, even if it is for a few moments, to connect with our Source of life and faith. Maybe what we really need is to be able to carry our "cells" around with us--in our hearts and minds--so that wherever we are, we can create space for silence, meditation and reflection. If I could come up with a phrase to encapsulate what I mean, I think I would call it, "The Monkhood of All Believers." Each of us is called, in our own ways, to retreat to our "cells" in order to learn there the lessons that God has to teach us. And because we live in a world where violence, greed, envy and a whole host of other sins abounds, we are standing in the tradition of the desert Abbas and Ammas, St. Cuthbert and so many others, by going to the hardest places on earth and building there sanctuaries dedicated to a life with God.
Tune in again, I think there's probably more to be said about this.