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Daily Meditations

Staying by Oneself (Part I)

March 5th, 2019

The ancient fathers continually advise the monks to remain in their kellion, to hold out and not run away from themselves. Stabilitas — constancy, holding on, staying by oneself — is the condition for every kind of human and spiritual progress.

St. Benedict sees in stability the cure for the sickness of his day (the time of the great tribal migrations), of uncertainty and constant movement. Stabilitas means remaining in the community that one has entered. And for Benedict it means that the tree must send down roots to be able to grow. Continual transplanting only blocks its development.

“Stability” means first of all staying by oneself, persevering before God in one’s kellion. Father Serapion says: “Child, if you want to have success, then stay in your kellion, pay attention to yourself and your manual labor. Going outside will not bring you so much profit as sitting still.”

The kellion means the monk’s habitation, a small space that he has built for himself and normally spends all his time in. He sits there praying and meditating. He also works there and spends his time weaving baskets, which he sells once a month at the market. We keep hearing in ever new variations the advice that whatever else one does, one must not run away from oneself, but remain in the kellion:

“A brother came into the skete [monks’ settlement] to Father Moses and asked to have a word with him. The old man told him: ‘Out, go to your kellion, and sit down, and the kellion will teach you everything.'”

“Someone said to Father Arsenios:

‘My thoughts are torturing me; they tell me: you can’t fast or work, so at least visit the sick; for that too is love.’ But the old man, who knew the seed of the demons, said to him: ‘Go and eat, drink and sleep and don’t work, only don’t leave your kellion!’ For he knew that staying in the kellion straightens the monk out.”

Such monks can do anything. They don’t need to practice any asceticism. They don’t even need to pray, provided they stay in their cells. If they do that, something in them will be transformed; they will find order within themselves. They will come face to face with all the inner chaos that surfaces in them. And they will give up trying to run away from it.

But it’s not enough just to sit in one’s kellion. Father Ammonas is reported to have said: “Someone might sit for a hundred years in a kellion without learning how to do it right.” But how then should the monk sit in his kellion? Is the issue here bodily posture, a definite way of sitting in meditation that keeps one awake? Or is the point the inner attitude one has while sitting in the kellion?

Presumably Father Ammonas means the attitude of stabilitas, of constancy. He’s not talking about sitting to weave daydreams or to doze, but sitting before God, and persevering in God’s presence. In sitting we become immobile. However, many things may be stirring within us, even if our thoughts storm back and forth, we remain unmoved; we stand firm. And if we maintain this external rest, the storm of thoughts and feelings will calm down.

~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers