“Thy cell, if thou continue in it, grows sweet, but if thou keep not to it, it becomes tedious and distasteful. If in the beginning of thy conversion thou accustom thyself to remain in thy cell and keep it well, it will be to thee afterwards a dear friend and a most agreeable delight.”
-- Thomas à Kempis (Imitation of Christ, Chapter 20)
Thanks to Blessed Titus Brandsma, OCarm, I came to understand the double senses of the ‘cell’ in the school of Carmel.
A cell is a small room, or “a small room in which a criminal is locked up” (Oxford Dictionary). We are more familiar with ‘cell’ as in a prison ‘cell’. Interestingly, it is also a term commonly used by religious to refer to their bedrooms.
If anyone had been inside of the cell of a cloistered religious, one would understand why it is called a ‘cell’ and not a ‘room’ – because it looks exactly like a prison cell. Inside the cell, the most basic furniture are: a simple single bed, a desk and a chair. Of course, in the more modern monasteries or religious houses, they would have more than these.
I know about this because I have seen a cell of a Carmelite nun. It was an unoccupied cell that was opened for visitors during the opening of their newly refurbished monastery in Kuching.
The first sense of the cell is exactly what the word implies, a small room. When Bl. Titus Brandsma was arrested (because he opposed the Nazi regime) and imprisoned in cell number 577 in Scheveningen, he wrote an account of his life in prison entitled “My Cell”, in which he described how he had made use of that little, cold room with minimal furniture. The account began with these words: “Cella continuata dulcesit” (a cell becomes sweeter as it is more faithfully dwelt in), which he quoted from the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.
“I am already quite at home in this small cell,” wrote Titus. “Now he [God] is my only refuge, and I feel secure and happy. … Seldom have I been so happy and content.”
Upon reading this, I was reminded of my own bedroom back in Kuching. It was not a big room, with a single bed, a small bedside table, a desk, two bookshelves, a stand-fan and a wardrobe. When I was much younger, I did not make use of it much aside from sleeping at night. But as I age and crave for privacy and solitude, I began to spend more time in that room. It was in the silence of that room that I prayed, cried, enjoyed reading and meditating, and found joy and peace in solitude. It was in that room that I experienced God’s presence.
Now having moved to Australia and settled into a new house, once again I made use of one of the rooms in the house as my study. I called it a cell, because it is small, smaller than the one I had back home in Kuching. After putting in a desk and a shelf, the room can barely fit a single bed. So I bought a small futon couch, which can be converted into a small bed. I fixed the special Trinitarian cross (a gift from my parish priest) and some icons of Our Lady and the Carmelite saints onto the wall. On the desk, there are two portraits of St John Paul II (my hero!), a small Byzantine cross, and a cheap-looking plastic skull as memento mori. My books… they are everywhere. Some are stacked up on the desk because I refer to them every now and then for my studies, others are messily placed on the shelf. Before long, you could expect some books to be arrayed on the futon couch as well!
Just like the room I had in Kuching, this is the cell where I found my heart at peace. This is where I work, pray, read, study, work and even cry. Since I am now in ‘exile’, God is my only refuge and it is here that I feel secure and happy.
I would suggest to everyone reading this to prepare a room as such for yourself, if it is at all possible. If a room is not possible, then set up a little quiet corner in the house where you can be alone by yourself. It is a fantastic way to keep ourselves sane, because as people of prayer, we need to spend time in solitude, and therefore we need a space where we can find security and peace, a place that is conducive for our meeting with God.
Truly, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, “thy cell, if thou continue in it, grows sweet, […] If…thou accustom thyself to remain in thy cell and keep it well, it will be to thee afterwards a dear friend and a most agreeable delight.”
This first sense deals with the exterior element, something that brings consolation to our senses. The second sense of the ‘cell’ points to the interior disposition of the heart. I shall touch on this in another write up.