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Sunday Worship 19 June | Sacred Spaces: cell

Updated: Mar 18

Matthew 6:1-18 (NIV)
“Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.’ For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
“When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”


George Lings describes Cell as “a small, secluded space where a person meets privately with God, and meets their inner self”. The language of Cell comes from the monastic tradition these sacred spaces are drawn from, but I appreciate that it may feel strange or even uncomfortable because of its more negative associations. Strange and uncomfortable is not always a bad thing, if it encourages us to see things from a different angle, but I think it would also be appropriate to speak of Room if that avoids distraction. Cell or Room is the only one of the seven spaces which is private - as we shall see in the coming weeks, all the others are shared. This reminds us that “life in Christ is lived both alone as well as together”. Tradition has it that one of the Desert Fathers, Abba Moses, counselled a fellow monk to “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. It’s a great line and even Lings seems to endorse it, but of course it's not quite true. Silence and solitude can teach us a lot, but we need conversation and company too.


Jesus himself set us an example in this. In the passage we have heard this morning he tells his followers to pray in private, and throughout the gospels he often goes alone to a quiet place to pray. And yet the prayer that he teaches his disciples uses collective language (“Our father” not “my father”), and on several occasions we see him pray publicly (for example when he raises Lazarus from the dead and at the last supper before his crucifixion). The point of the passage from Matthew is not that prayer is only ever a private undertaking, but that it must be done authentically not performatively. In truth we need to balance individual and corporate forms of worship, for neither is a substitute for the other.


(While we are thinking about the passage, I chose to go from the beginning of the chapter, because it seemed appropriate to hear Jesus’ words about giving to the needy on the morning that we have heard from our charity of the year. Of course we do announce the charity we are supporting, but that is because we want to draw attention to their work, and because our fundraising is a collective effort and so there does need to be a certain amount of shared knowledge. The point should never be to make ourselves look good, and that is a important corrective to have in mind as we think about how we can support One Roof in the coming months.)


So having put in place the caveat that prayer is not always private, why is it so important that you should “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen”? Lings says he has become convinced that “a Christian cannot grow, mature and deepen in following Christ, becoming more like him, without the spiritual foundational work that is undertaken principally in the space called Cell” for “Cell is where we learn the conscious practice by which thoughts are identified, confronted, refused and reshaped”. It goes beyond the traditional ‘quiet time’ that so many of us will have been taught and encouraged in, and becomes a place of deep listening to ourselves and to God, in order to bring about deep transformation. That’s not to say that there is no value in things like daily scripture notes, but to encourage us to use them in such a way that there is space for more than that which is on the page.


Because this kind of deep listening and transformation is not easy and is far from the only demand on our time, we need to really want to do it, and so Lings asks this: “how can a triumphing desire for God overcome the powerful desires and delights sold shamelessly to us by our dominant culture and our own desires?” In a kind of circular way, the answer lies in both Cell and community (used here as shorthand for the other six spaces) for the more time we spend in them, the more we will hear and the more we will be transformed. In other words, we need to trust the wisdom of those who have gone to their Cell and lived in community before us, and give it a go.


Those of you who have been hearing me preach for nearly four years may not be surprised to hear that I think the answers can also come from unexpected places beyond Cell and community, or perhaps it is that Cell and community can themselves be found in unexpected places. If Scriptorium is a place of study, then popular culture is frequently my Scriptorium, and not long after reading Lings’ question I watched the final episode of Everything I Know About Love. In one of the closing scenes, the main character’s mother shared this reflection: “I think that you are looking for an extraordinary kind of love, but I don’t think for what it’s worth that you want to be loved in an extraordinary way. I think what you want is to be loved plainly and quietly, without spectacle or anxiety...You want the person you love to feel like peace.” Those words answered Lings’ question for me. I think a triumphing desire for God can overcome those other desires and delights, because deep down we all want a love that feels like peace, and that is what we find in God.


Because Cell is so private, there is no right way to do it and no step by step guide, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the practice of others, and so it might be helpful to end with some practical notes. Lings suggests that Cell does not have to be entirely separate from other spaces. “For a person who meets God in the delights of nature, practising Cell might be outdoors, a link to Garden. For those who come alive through reading, Cell meets Scriptorium. Those helped by magnificent buildings with ritual and symbol are mixing Cell and Chapel. Those who are drawn to care for others may find Cell and Refectory overlap.” Lings even suggests that Cell doesn’t even need to be a space at all. “Ultimately, Cell is more than a location; it is an interior reality.” It may help to have a particular place to return to, but we all have different circumstances and temperaments, and so that may not be possible or even preferable. Perhaps we might create a sense of Cell through particular objects like holding crosses or prayer beads, or through rituals like lighting a candle.


Lings confesses that he is not sure how parents of children under five do Cell, and as someone who falls in that category, I’m not sure I could give him a satisfactory answer. I did have vague hopes of turning the smallest room in the manse into a prayer space, and then Miri came along and it became her bedroom instead. With two children and two busy parents it is a struggle to find three square feet that are sufficiently clear of clutter to be conducive to quiet contemplation, and so at the moment I find listening to a guided reflection with my eyes closed is what works best for me. But of course it is not only children that make practising Cell difficult, as there are all manner of things that put pressure on the time and space that we have, and so perhaps this is where we might support one another, sharing what has worked for us in different seasons of our lives. I hope that as we continue to move through this series, we will reflect and share together, so that for each of us Cell and community may enrich and be enriched by one another.


If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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