Sit in your cell

I spent the second summer of my second seminary experience at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. Clinical Pastoral Education is a key part of preparation for priestly ministry in the Episcopal Church. It’s a concentrated period of chaplaincy, a time for making oneself radically available to others in need, but with an eye to self examination. The work of CPE is both outwardly directed and inwardly reflective. While you meet many people over the course of the program the person you get to know best is yourself and it’s not always fun or pretty. At best, CPE is demanding; more often than not it’s a twelve-week-long emotional rollercoaster. And sometimes the most surprising insights come from unexpected directions.

Houston was too far from Austin for me to stay at home and commute, but there was no way that my wife and girls could come with me for the whole summer. Consequently, I found a small, one bedroom b&b in a gentrified neighborhood just north of Rice University, a hop skip and jump away from the monumental Texas Medical Center where I’d be working. It was a charming little apartment building built in the 1930s and recently renovated. It was comfortable, quiet and very, very empty.

I had plans, of course, to fill my time in Houston. There were phenomenal museums only minutes from my apartment, great nightlife with live music, and no lack of amenities to occupy my attention. Twelve weeks alone would be long but there was more than enough to do.

Instead, my routine every day looked much the same. I would arrive home from the hospital to a quiet apartment. I would change into more comfortable clothes, grateful to shed the suit and tie I was expected to wear despite the Houston heat and humidity. Then I would lay down on the bed, accompanied by my iPad and whatever dinner I had purchased or prepared, and spend the remainder of the evening reading, watching movies and television or talking with my family. At some point, I would fall asleep and wake to a new day of the same. On weekends I would sometimes go for walks through the neighborhood, though not as many as I would like just because of the broiling heat. I would sometimes go out to eat, and a couple of times I caught a movie and crashed a local hobby shop. I never went to the museums or the parks. Mostly, I just huddled in my temporary home.

Maybe it was the emotional drain of spending days in rooms with strangers, often at one of the worst moments of their lives, that induced this social lethargy. Maybe it was the relentless self-examination and enforced vulnerability with others in my CPE group. Maybe it was the dislocation and the lack of a ready network of local friends. But I think, ironically enough, it was the emptiness of my quarters that made me unwilling to leave it.

As the summer went on it dawned on me that I, now in my late forties, had never lived alone before. I had gone from my parent’s home to living with my grandmother for several years, then to marriage and making a home with my wife and (eventually) my daughters. In all those years I had grown accustomed to being surrounded by the demanding presence of others.

Oh, I would relish the occasional trips my wife would take with our girls to visit family or travel, but inevitably I would experience what I came to call the ‘bachelor window.’ For the first 24 to 36 hours I would eat, drink and be merry, but after a couple of days of this liberation I would start to long for company and to chafe at the quiet. By day three or four I would be actively pining for my family to return. My social reflexes were not accustomed to more than a few hours of unbroken solitude. 

A brother came to Scetis in the Egyptian desert to visit Abba Moses and asked him, “Father, give me a word.” The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

What I learned in that summer of solitude was how much of my ‘self’ was the product of the expectations and energy of others. Left to my own devices, I discovered that much of my motivation dissipated.

Sure, it’s not an original insight. It is, in fact, one of the truly important realizations of religious and spiritual life. I could have told you all of that long before I ever made my home there on Hazard Street. Prior to that summer, however, it had remained largely a theoretical understanding. I had never lived alone in my cell long enough to learn how little of my self was really me. 

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