I walked back to the house slowly. My eyes scanned the neighborhood for any sign of life—a car pulling into a driveway, a porch light turned on. I had never felt so desperate for connection. Small talk with a complete stranger sounded strangely euphoric. Alas, I made my way through the streets without but a hint of human connection. Like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film I opened the door to the house feeling as though I was the last man alive.
This was years ago. I was one week into a three-week solitude retreat in a small town on the Puget Sound. The fundamental task for the week was prayer. Familiar companions of activity were cast aside—no books, no phone, no television, no computer. In their place, new friends were to keep me company—solitude, silence, stillness. I was not permitted to leave the retreat house, but for a brief walk during the day.
The heroic spiritual adventure I had in mind had been swallowed up by a bewildering mixture of anxiety and loneliness. The retreat had proven to be a time in the darkness of Gethsemane, not the bright light of the Mount of Transfiguration. The silence and solitude had exposed sin, fear, anger, idolatry. I wanted to escape, to leave the mirror behind and forget the face I had seen. But I couldn’t move, literally. I couldn’t go for a drive, shuffle along busy city streets, go for a long run. The task was to “remain here, and watch” (Matt. 26:38).
Go to Your Cell
A few years after my three-week retreat, I was studying the tradition of the desert fathers and mothers. Buried within this rich deposit of Christian wisdom, the words of Abba Moses caught my attention: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” These words brought me back to my time on retreat. The invitation for me to stay put, to stop and be still, was a call to sit in my cell. The goal was to expose the heart, preventing the demands of an externally busy life from muzzling the internal roar of anger, fear, grief, pain, jealousy, and anxiety. This was the “everything” my cell had to teach me.
“He who searches hearts” (Rom. 8:27) was meeting me in my “everything” with a simple question, a question he posed to Adam long ago: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). In the midst of Adam’s scrambling, hiding, and covering to deal with the ramifications of his sin, God invited him to stay put and face him in the truth of his heart. God’s question, of course, was not betraying some gap in knowledge, some confusion about the state of things. It was rather a gracious invitation for Adam to be exposed: to know God and be known by God. It was an invitation away from the path of false wisdom and onto the true path, which John Calvin reminds us is the “knowledge of God, and of ourselves.”
Home as Teaching Cell
Because of COVID-19, my family and I have been sheltered at home now, here in California, for more than two months. By the grace of God, we have not faced serious health or financial challenges. For our kids, home life is fairly normal, as we have homeschooled for many years. The primary sacrifice for us has simply been an inability to move, to be active, to be busy with the things we are usually busy with. It has meant being still.
I have heard countless suggestions in recent weeks for how I can best use this time. I have heard calls to be even more productive than normal, using the space to start a new project or get caught up on something I have left unattended. I have heard the calls to take up new spiritual practices, like silence or solitude. I have heard the calls to connect more deeply with my family, to soak up every moment.
None of these suggestions is bad. They deserve prayerful consideration. However, I believe God is fundamentally calling me to something different in this season. It’s a call to simply stay home and stop moving, to be still, to remain where I am. It’s a call to go to my cell. My cell is not a cave in the desert, nor a house overlooking the Puget Sound. Rather, my cell is a home with a wife, four children, and a puppy. In the Puritan tradition, the spiritual purpose of a monastic cell was not abandoned, but rather relocated to one’s home—the new venue for an intentional life of prayer, marked by rigor and rhythm. This is how I am seeking to view my home these days.
In the Puritan tradition, the spiritual purpose of a monastic cell was not abandoned, but rather relocated to one’s home—the new venue for an intentional life of prayer.
Invitation to Pray
For me, this life of prayer doesn’t involve extended times of silence and solitude. Four kids and a puppy make this rather challenging! Yet the invitation into prayer is the same invitation I received in the Puget Sound retreat house all those years ago. It’s an invitation to remain, not to run away. It’s a call to meet God in the honest depths of my heart. What I’m seeing in this time is not altogether different from what I have seen before. I am finding fear, anxiety, anger, and grief. I’m discovering a short temper at times with my family. I’m noticing a real inability to sit still and do “nothing.” This cell is teaching me how much I am driven by my own productivity, how areas of unprocessed pain have left me tender and defensive, and how fear of the future can drive my life.
Oh, how I would love to get back to “normal life” in which my important work, study, and activities could swallow whole any hint of awareness that such things are driving my life every day. But thanks be to God, he loves me too much to permit it. Thanks be to God, he’s calling me to stay home. Thanks be to God, he never grows tired of asking, “Where are you?”