Here’s one of my favorite little stories from the sayings of the Desert Fathers:
In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice. He said to him “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” (Quiet, 8)
Moses wasn’t talking about prison. The “cell” was a monk’s hut or cave in the 4th century Egyptian desert.
Stay In Your Cell
The advice was to stay put. Don’t go run errands.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers clearly didn’t always heed that advice: We have books of their sayings because they kept leaving their cells to hang out with each other.
Stay in the cell and they stayed in the game. That’s where the praying happened. That’s where they wrestled with their demons — all the issues that kept them from Christ.
Outside the cell? All distractions, all the time.
Here’s a saying from another desert father. This guy kept leaving his cell:
Hey look, a squirrel!
But seriously, to keep at their main calling they had to avoid external distractions. Only then could they even notice all the inner obstacles that stood between their current state and new life in Christ.
If they didn’t notice the obstacles they surely would never conquer them.
The Writer’s Cell
Abba Moses’ advice to desert monks applies very well to the life of a writer. I too have work to do that takes inward focus. I need to stay in my cell.
The modern version of this is abbreviate “BIC.” That is,
(Keep your) Bum In (the) Chair.
I need to stay in one place and produce words. It doesn’t matter much if I write with a pen or a keyboard. But I do have to stay put.
Right now I’m in a cafe. Traffic goes by. People are talking in the background.
Hey look, a squirrel!
I need to heed Moses’ advice to stay in my cell. That is where the real action is. That is where I’ll fight the battles that matter.
If I don’t stay put, I am giving into one of the most deadly temptations: I don’t write down the words I came to write. I miss the battle I came here to fight. On purpose.
I often tell myself that it doesn’t matter where I write. To some degree that is true. There are bestselling authors who scribbled out their novels while commuting by bus or train.
I’ve written in countless cafes over the years. And in many libraries. And on a bench by the water. And of course at my very own desk.
But I notice that I list my very own desk last of all. That means I’m not very good at staying in my cell.
And even in my cell I can sabotage my writing life with clutter. There is the physical clutter of objects that grab my eye. There is also temporal clutter of chores and other demands.
Clutter makes it had to focus on the main thing I need to do.
My good news is that I have an excellent opportunity to change. I have a new space to turn into an office — my cell. I have choices to make about clutter and about what I do when I’m in there.
And about whether I go into my cell at all.
Moses has a good word for all of us who want to be productive and creative.
Stay in your cell. Do the work.
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