Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter VII. The Cell.

"HOW many words men have dragged down with themselves and made partakers more or less of their own fall!" These words are quoted from Archbishop Trench's classical book, "On the Study of Words," and nowhere can his exclamation find more apt illustration than in the history of the word "cell." To almost everyone it suggests a prison or a mad-house. But in its origin, and indeed until a few generations ago, its use made it a word full of charm and sweet suggestion. It is derived from the Latin word celare, to hide, and signifies a secret and holy place, a quiet retreat. Says the author of that delightful book, "A Day in the Cloister," "In the Roman temples the most secret, inner part where the image of the divinity stood was called the cella. In like manner is the cell of the monk a sanctuary in which, as in his heart, God may dwell."

The Abbot Moses, famed for his sanctity among the ancient Egyptian hermits, said, "Go and sit in your cell; it will teach you all things." The British scholar and monk Alcuin, when called from the quiet of his cloister by the Emperor Charlemagne to lay the foundations upon which the great European universities were afterwards to be built, cried, "O my cell, sweet and beloved abode! Farewell! O my dear cell, farewell forever!" It was in the stillness of his cell that he was wont to meet and converse with God, [51/52] and, as the places associated with our best loved ones are always dear to us, so his cell was a place dearer to him than all others save the altar.

In the early days of monasticism the monks slept together in a wide dormitory, but this was soon found to lead to distractions, and to militate against the peace and stillness necessary for prayer, spiritual study, and meditation. So each monk was assigned his own cell, his little secret chamber where his communion with God would be uninterrupted. This custom arose out of the consciousness that the development of the spiritual life required silence and solitude, and the cell of the Religious was called his "workshop for spiritual exercises."

At Holy Cross we have sought to profit by the experiences of the ages. Each Religious has his own cell, a place of quiet and peace. No one may enter the cell of another without permission from the Superior. This not only insures the Religious against unnecessary interruption, but more than this, it gives him that inner sense of security against intrusion which is so necessary to the frame of mind in which one can pray and study. No general conversation is permitted in the cells. The Religious never pays visits of a general character in the cells, but when the business for which he calls is over, he retires.

The cell, though so marked with the spirit of privacy, is never a place for relaxation except when religious rule and custom provide for the taking of rest. There may be no lounging and one's manner and [52/53] attitude is always to be determined by the stimulating thought that God is one's room-mate. After dinner, which is served at mid-day at Holy Cross, there is a period of about forty minutes during which the monks are permitted a siesta, but at the ringing of a bell at two o'clock all are again at their duties.

The cells are small, being about ten feet square, and as much alike as possible. The furnishings are plain. Some would think them austere. Each contains a cot without springs; a table or desk of simple construction; two straight chairs without arms or cushions; a priedieu and a crucifix, and at the door a small holy-water stoup. There may be a small statue or a picture of our Lord, or of a patron saint, but nothing else in the way of adornment. There are, of course, no carpets or rugs.

Religious rule always requires the cells to be kept in order and cleanliness. The occupant of the cell takes care of it himself, making his bed before nine every morning. This same privilege is not denied to our guests, although they sometimes may prove a bit unskillful at it. One of the first duties in which a novice is instructed is in the care of his cell.

Cells in a religious house are not numbered like rooms in a hotel, or called by fanciful or poetic names as is sometimes done in the country-houses, but each bears the name of a saint. At Holy Cross the names were chosen with reference to saints whose festivals are observed in our Kalendar. Some of them, however, were chosen when the monastery was built [53/54] many years ago because of some personal or parish relationship. Most of the cells were furnished at that time by parishes or individuals with whom the Order had been associated. For example, the cell dedicated to St. Clement was furnished by a gift from the parish of that name in Philadelphia, with which for nearly half a century members of the Order had been intimately associated. It was, as we saw, at a retreat for priests given at St. Clement's Church in 1881, by the late Canon Knox Little, that our founder, Father Huntington, was given the first clear vision of a vocation for an American religious community for men.

The cell dedicated to St. Mamertus was furnished by the late Dr. George Clark Houghton, of the Church of the Transfiguration, New York. This saint, who instituted the Rogation Days nearly sixteen hundred years ago, was his patron. Another association which we value much is in connection with St. John the Evangelist. The cell which bears his name was given by a sister of Father Coggeshall who, in the earlier days of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, died while in the novitiate of that community, at Cowley, Oxford. This is a guest cell, and a portrait of Father Coggeshall hangs in it as a memorial, and to remind the occupant to pray for his soul.

In religious houses there are numerous customs in connection with the cells, which have great significance and charm. We do not follow all of these at [54/55] Holy Cross, and certain of them are spoken of here merely as throwing light on how the cell, as a religious institution, is to be regarded. One of them is in connection with the holy water. It is an old Benedictine use that once a week the sacristan goes from cell to cell to fill the stoups. He knocks at each door, saying "Ecce aqua benedicta, Behold the blessed water," and from within the reply is given, "Sit mihi salus et vita, May it be to me salvation and life." Another custom is to reply to the knock of those who might call at one's cell with the salutation, "In Nomine Dei, In the Name of God."

In many communities, it is the custom for the Religious to practice detachment by changing their cells each year, in order to remind themselves that we have here no permanent abiding place, "no continuing city," as St. Paul puts it. We all know how easy it is to become attached to special places and things--to be a bit unhappy if we are not able to occupy the same old room, to sleep in the same bed, to use the same table, or even small utensils such as knife or pen. Of course, such attachments are quite contrary to the spirit of the Religious life, and the good Religious welcomes the opportunity to mortify himself, and to practise that self-sacrifice which, even in little things, fosters the spirit of the vocation to which God has called him.

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