The Art of Stillness

I have been exploring the Irish penitentials lately and I came across this little gem from the Bigotian penitential, an Irish text which was influential on the continent in Europe. The penitentials were fascinating documents which addressed a wide variety of topics. Deep spiritual insights are intermingled with rules about what to do if your dog kills a neighbours lamb or how many psalms to sing if you are feeling upset with your family. While everything in the penitentials is fascinating and gives us insight into historical Celtic Christianity, in this article I want to focus specifically on one of the deep spiritual insights about embodying stillness in our lives.

In the section of the Bigotian penitential dedicated to acedia there is a collection of quotes from the desert monks. In this particular penitential, the eight principle vices are divided into various subheadings. One of those subheadings is the spiritual wound of “wandering about.”

This sort of wandering is not the same as the ascetic practice of peregrinatio pro Christo followed by many of the Irish monks, most notably Columbanus. That sort of wandering is about renouncing the world and following God into the unknown. The wandering which the Bigotian penitential is concerned with is an anxious and restless wandering, an inability to sit still and exist peacefully in our own skin.

The first medicine from the desert monks which this penitential suggests is a famous quote from Abba Anthony, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you all things”. A monastic cell is a small room which one either visits regularly or lives in all the time. It is a place of intentional solitude and stillness.

When Abba Moses says that our cell will teach us everything, what he really means is the solitude and stillness which a cell provides. The Bigotian penitential goes on to describe two more teachings from the desert tradition which explore what sort of things our cell can teach us.

The first insight comes from Amma Syncletica, one of the few Desert Mothers whose teachings survive today. Syncletica uses the image of a mother hen tending to her eggs when describing the importance of sitting still in one’s cell. She uses the nest as a metaphor for our cell and the eggs as a metaphor for the virtues we are cultivating. If the mother hen leaves her eggs to wander about, the eggs will grow cold and never hatch.

In the same way, Syncletica tells us, if a monk is wandering about aimlessly, the virtues which they are tenderly caring for will never be fully realised. The mother’s warm presence is needed if her beloved chicks are ever going to hatch. We should love the virtues we are cultivating as much as a mother loves her children and we should attend to them with the same diligence.

The second teaching from the desert which the penitential gives us is attributed to an unnamed elder. A novice asks the elder what to do about his wandering thoughts at the time of prayer and the elder replies, “Sit down in your cell and your thoughts will come to you again”. The elder then continues using a parable about a mother donkey and her foal. The novice who is unable to calm his chaotic thoughts is like the mother donkey. His thoughts which he cannot control are like the donkey’s foal who is recklessly running around.

If the mother donkey tries to run around and chase after her foal, they are both likely to get lost. But, if she is tied to a post so that she cannot wander, her foal will never stray too far from her. Even when the foal runs about it will always return to its mother, if she is still and waits for it to come back on its own. In the same way, the unnamed elder tells us, the novice should not be concerned about chasing after thoughts but rather should return to his cell. When he is tethered to one place, his thoughts will eventually return to him and he need not worry.

Solitude and stillness help us to calm our chaotic thoughts. Because our inner condition influences the way we live and act in the world, the unknown author of this penitential felt it was necessary to include practices which heal the soul. We often think of penance as a form of punishment in the modern world, but the true intention of the practice (at lest for the the early Celtic Christians) was a form of restorative justice.

If people are given the tools they need to have inner peace then they will act peacefully in the world. When the people of the world learn to sit with their thoughts they will have peace in their thoughts. When the people of the world have peaceful thoughts, the world will become a peaceful place. This is the true intention behind the penitential tradition – to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by treating the spiritual wounds which people carry in their souls.

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