We think of ourselves as being more enlightened, more advanced in our thinking and ways of doing things than those who have gone before us. But way back in the fourth century, a monk living in the desert of Egypt said something that still has the ring of revelatory truth about it, all these years later. Abba Moses - that’s the name he is remembered by, although I somehow doubt it was the name given by his Ethiopian parents - was sought out by some wisdom-seeker. Bearing in mind how far this guy had travelled into the desert, looking for truth that would undergird his life in some new and revolutionary way, the old monk said this:
‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Seriously? Isn’t that just the biggest cop-out ever? ‘Thanks for coming. Now go back to your small room and everything you need to learn, you will learn there.’ I mean, if we applied this teaching method to our big conferences and worship events, we would very soon be facing empty auditoriums.
‘Go home, people. Stay put. Be steadfast in the midst of the small daily routines of your life. And you will be taught everything you need to know in the face of this ordinary, repetitive and sometimes monotonous reality.’
This is not a message I want to hear. This is not the kind of message we pay hundreds of dollars and travel thousands of miles to be taught. We want something way more sexy, something that sounds more important, more radical, something that promises more adventure or significance. And yet, here it is … as true today as it was way back in the fourth century for that poor traveller into the desert.
The cell Abba Moses spoke of wasn’t a prison, although sometimes it might have felt that way. It may have been a small cave, or a little nook carved out of a sand-blasted rocky overhang. It might just as easily have been a small room, or even a tent. It was the dwelling place of a spiritual seeker, his shelter. It was the place he had chosen to be, and yet the place he might often feel like running away from.
And we all have places like that.
My cell, if you will, is this house I am sitting in. A tad larger than the cell a desert monk might call home, nevertheless these walls are the place of my dwelling. This is where I am tethered by ordinary life, where I am held fast by my own free will. This is the reality I sometimes want to run away from, and this is the reality through which I am learning what it means to follow Jesus.
I often resist these lessons in a life of faith. The interactions here in this home that squeeze me beyond any natural patience I might have - which admittedly, isn’t that much - so that I develop a patience that comes from a deeper place. The repetitive routines that invite me to learn what it is to put the needs of others before my own. The many, many times when choosing not to speak is more beneficial than indulging my own desire to be heard. The self-control that can only be learned by choosing to love the person in front of me more than I love letting rip with my own impulses. The choosing to create beauty and meaning right in the midst of the ordinary and the commonplace. The crafting of intentional connection when everybody so easily gets distracted by their own small worlds of activity and entertainment.
Right here, in this place of preparing meals and helping with homework, of repeated cycles of teenage hormones and the weekly ups and downs of energy and fatigue, here is where I come face-to-face with myself. And it isn’t always pretty. I see my self-centredness because I am daily invited to be other-focused. I see patterns of communication that betray elements of resentment, or of ego that I thought I had conquered. I see how easy it is for me to attempt to deceive or to hide rather than to be seen for who I really am. This cell of mine, this ordinary life of being a mother and a wife, it holds up a mirror to what is true about me and it extends an invitation to change.
It's easy to think that the change we long for in our lives will be found by heading out to the desert, maybe, or to the next big worship event or bible conference. It goes without saying that getting together with others in ways that encourage and strengthen us can be a good thing. I know for myself, though, that the deeper more sustainable growth is happening right where I am. Here, in the crucible of the everyday, is where I am learning to put into practice what I know to be true. It's far more ordinary than I want it to be, somehow. And yet no less supernatural for all that.
I guess Abba Moses was onto something.