Spending time in the cell
The cell is a foundational symbol and metaphor in Catherine’s wisdom about the spiritual journey. In Catherine’s day, the common meaning of cell referred to the home and living space of a hermit living in the periphery of a medieval city such as Siena, or to the bedroom of monks and nuns living in the monastery. The cell-bedroom was also the space where time was spent in silence and solitude in order to pray and connect to God.
Because Catherine’s earliest experience of connection to God happened in the solitude of her bedroom at her parents’ home, and she considered this her “cell,” going into one’s cell came to signify taking time to connect with God, in addition to its ordinary meaning referring to a particular type of room.
As we shall see below, “cell” came to express various dimensions of intentionally connecting to God’s presence. It was a metaphor for the state of consciousness necessary for the encounter with God, namely the experience of focusing one’s consciousness introspectively, opening oneself to “hear” or inwardly perceive God’s presence-communication-inspiration. Such inward focus facilitated the experience of God’s love, as well as the introspective experience of honestly appraising who one is before God. As we shall see, Catherine formulated the key dynamic of the spiritual journey as growth in knowledge of God and of self before God in order to be transformed in capacity to love. And time in the cell was necessary for this dynamic to take place.
Catherine used the word cell paired with other words to signify different aspects of this foundational dynamic of spending time with consciousness focused inward. There is the cell of self-knowledge, sometimes the house of self-knowledge (with a similar meaning), the cell of the soul, the cell of the side of Christ, and others as we shall see below.
As I have explained, Catherine communicated her wisdom in short, usually intense texts, often loaded with images and intertwined metaphors. Her letters, remember, are more akin to sermons than to essays. One gains layers of insight by examining her texts as one might a poem or painting, interpreting their symbolic meanings that appeal to the whole person and not just to reason. As well, it is important to overlay texts with nuances about the same topic. Through these exercises one can acquire a more comprehensive understanding of Catherine’s wisdom. Accordingly, in what follows I will cite several passages in which Catherine uses the word cell to show the multiple nuances of her teaching through this metaphor.
Becoming accustomed to dwelling in the cell
For Catherine, the basis for a spiritual journey is becoming accustomed to dwelling in the cell, that is, to spending time in connection with God. Thus, this concept is highlighted in the first paragraph of The Dialogue.
She [the soul] has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it. (Dialogue 1.25)
We have said the cell is a metaphor for an inner experience of introspection, an inner experience of tuning-in to the place of consciousness where we connect with the reality of God and can know ourselves while conscious of God’s love. Thus, becoming accustomed to regularly taking time for such introspective inner experience is a basic first step in the spiritual journey.
In this first paragraph of The Dialogue, cell is paired with self-knowledge. This pairing emphasizes that a most significant dimension of regular introspection is becoming conscious of our sinfulness, our woundedness, our self-centeredness, and our all-around need for God. This self-knowledge makes possible receptivity and appreciation of God’s unconditional mercy and care for us. By upon knowledge follows love Catherine refers to the dynamic of recognizing one’s need for God and then experiencing God’s merciful transformative love. That is, with felt knowledge of one’s need, one is able to appreciate God’s love as all accepting and merciful and one is able to recognize the change in one’s sinful, self-centeredness as a result of grace. This interrelated dynamic—two sides of the same coin—that is, knowledge of self plus felt appreciation of God’s love, leads to growth in desire for God and the transformation God offers, as well as desire to perceive reality according to God’s perspective and act accordingly.
Thus, in this first paragraph of her full-length work, Catherine asserts that becoming accustomed to spending time in introspection that focuses on God and knowledge of who we are before God is the foundation of the spiritual journey.
You are the cell, God is the bed
Catherine tells the nun, Costanza, about the cell, where the cell has three interrelated meanings. Cell has the straightforward meaning of physical space; it is Costanza’s bedroom. At the same time cell is a metaphor for the core of Costanza’s identity, her spiritual self, and a metaphor for the experience of focusing on inner spiritual reality. This is an example of Catherine’s intricate metaphors, where one image can have multiple meanings in one text. This is also a particularly rich text containing the core of Catherine’s wisdom on the dynamics of the spiritual journey, insights similar to the above paragraph from The Dialogue.
You know what you should do? That which you do when you go into your cell at night to go to sleep. First you reach your cell, and once inside, your bed. You clearly know that you need the cell [as a space in which to sleep], but then your eye and desire (affetto) focus on your bed, where you find rest. You should act in a similar manner when you reach the cell of self-knowledge; I want you to open your eye to knowledge through affective love. Go into the cell and go to bed, in which bed you will find God’s sweet goodness, which is within you, cell. You will see clearly that your being was granted to you through grace and not out of obligation. . . . For you see my daughter, this bed is covered with a red bedspread, the blood of the sacrificed lamb. So, rest there and never leave. Notice that you have no cell without a bed nor a bed without a cell. Nurture your soul in this goodness of God. (Letter 73, May 1376)
Let me try to unpack this text. Notice Catherine wants Constanza to reflect on the analogy and not just acknowledge it with her mind. For Catherine wants to teach her followers the importance of reflection on their experience. First, Catherine sets up an analogy to catch Costanza’s attention in a very mundane, concrete way. Costanza should reflect on what it is like to recognize that her cell is necessary to have a good night’s rest, yet most important for a good rest is the bed. In terms of the metaphor, Catherine tells Costanza that she must seek quiet in order to connect to God (enter the cell) but must also focus on knowledge of God’s love (go to bed, where God is the bed). That is, she needs a space for the silence and introspection necessary to experience God and most of all to know herself in the light of God’s love.
In an interrelated manner, the cell is not just a space for introspection. It is the cell of self-knowledge, that is the space for introspection is to be used to focus on knowledge of self while connected to God.
And cell has a related third meaning. Costanza herself is the cell in her potential for the experience of inner consciousness. When Catherine says, which is within you, cell, she is addressing Costanza as cell, that is as dwelling for the experience of connection to God. In other words, Catherine is saying that we are spiritual beings, we have an inherent capacity to encounter God when focused on our inward, spiritual dimension. And in this inwardness, we consciously meet the reality of God and the truth, good and bad, about ourselves. As the physical cell is necessary for a good night’s rest, so space to focus on inner experience in silence is necessary for the spiritual journey, and we must take seriously that we have an inner spiritual dimension which is also a cell, that is a space where we encounter God.
So, in order to encounter God, we should be conscious of requiring a physical space where we can have silence and solitude. We should pay attention to the reality that we have a place of consciousness within us where we can connect to spiritual reality. In these “spaces” we encounter God’s love and learn to know ourselves before God.
Catherine’s metaphor continues. Catherine elaborates on her imagery of the bed, God’s love. Costanza must now imagine the bedspread of the bed, which is symbolic of the Blood; blood is in turn a symbol for God’s love as offering redemption and salvation. So once in the cell and focused on the experience of inner quiet, Costanza is to notice God’s goodness, and more specifically God’s love as saving and transforming; and as already stated, knowledge of these dimensions of God’s love come through knowledge of our need for God. In other words, Catherine taught that God’s love might be experienced as consolation, as joy, as peace and in other ways, but it must always be experienced as saving and transforming. For this is the main effect of God’s love within us. Thus, Costanza should never separate herself from returning to focus on God’s saving love, which involves at the same time, knowledge of self. The metaphorical admonition to rest in the bed covered by the red bedspread and never leave that bed means that Costanza’s spiritual consciousness should regularly and frequently return to focus on God’s love as transformative.
Catherine adds a riddle: there is no bed without a cell and no cell without a bed. What does she mean by this? There exists no interiorly felt, savored experience of God’s goodness and salvific love (the bed) without taking time for silent inward focus and paying attention to how God moves in our lives (cell). And the experience of inner connection to the transcendent within us (cell) is possible because God dwells within us (bed).
The cell is a well
The following text is from a letter written to her cousin and Dominican friar, Tommaso dalla Fonte. Through the metaphor of a well filled in part with soil, then with water, we learn other nuances about Catherine’s wisdom regarding the cell and knowledge of God and self. Also, we again see how Catherine’s wisdom must be deciphered from her multiple metaphors and symbols.
If we were to ask our sweetest, most loving, most merciful Father, he would respond saying something like, “Dearest children, if you want to find my will, to develop a felt sense for it, then always dwell in the cell of your soul.” This cell is a well, filled with both water and soil. In the soil we can recognize our poverty, that we are not; for when we recognize that we are not, we are able to see that our being comes from God. Oh! ardent charity beyond comprehension, I see that the living water has found and reached the soil bringing with it the truth of His true, sweet will, which only wants our sanctification.
And so, let us go into the depth of this well, where we will become compellingly convinced that dwelling there we will come to know ourselves and the goodness of God. With repentance and humility, we will learn that we are not, and then we will enter into the burning, consuming, open heart [of God], which is as an open window that never closes. Focusing on the free will God has given us, we come to know and see that His will is focused on our sanctification and nothing else. (Letter 41, uncertain date)
In this text there are two metaphors for cell: the cell of the soul, and the cell as a well.
Cell of the soul
Using the voice of God, Catherine tells Tommaso to spend time in the cell of the soul, by which Catherine means something similar to “you are the cell” in her letter to the nun, Costanza. That is, the core of our being is a dwelling place for the experience of God. This dwelling place is the conscious experience of our transcendent self, where we connect to God. We are cell, because we have a soul, meaning that as humans we exist in both spiritual as well as material reality, and have a capacity to connect to God, who both holds us in being and is present to us through the Spirit. So, spending time in the cell of the soul implies entering into the experience of quiet listening and quiet receptivity to our inner consciousness in order to connect to God.
We are not
The cell, or that inner consciousness is also like a well. When we go into this well, or inner consciousness, we first encounter soil which is a metaphor for the experience that we are not. What does Catherine mean by this expression common in her writings? By we are not Catherine means that we depend on God, without God we would not exist, without God’s help we would fail to actualize the best of who we are. This expression reflects a knowledge that is beyond words, acquired by Catherine through her closeness to God. She invites Tommaso to the sort of closeness to God that will reveal to him as well, this foundational intuition.
Catherine tells us we learn that we are not through repentance and humility. Humility, in Catherine’s medieval spirituality, means recognition of the truth, both good and bad about ourselves. On the one hand humility involves appreciating that our very existence depends on God, and most crucially that we need God and are not sufficient onto ourselves; on the other hand, humility involves recognizing in a felt way that we are made in the image of God and filled with God’s life.
Repentance in this context involves letting God know that we are sorry for the ways in which we act as though we do not need God. This wisdom on humility and repentance reminds us that part of the spiritual journey of knowledge of self involves discovering the ways one lives as though one did not need God.
Back to her metaphor of the well: to the extent that spending time connected to our spiritual core—focused on inner consciousness—leads us to an intuition about our need for God, we will move through the soil to the water. Here water is a metaphor for God’s unimaginable love; experience of that love affirms within us that God always wants what is best for us and our salvation.
Note that Catherine uses two unrelated metaphors to emphasize her intuition. God is living water, the substance absolutely needed for life. Just as persons must drink water to stay alive, they must connect to God’s love in order to flourish as humans capable of love. That is, we must drink of God or we are not. Catherine emphasizes this key formulation of her wisdom through a change of metaphors: God’s love is an open heart beckoning to us, and at the same time God’s heart is like a window which never closes. In other words, as we recognize our need for God, we will experience that God’s love is like an open heart, inviting us, waiting to pull us in and embrace us; and this embrace of love is a love that never abandons us (a window that never closes).
The image of living water is Biblical, as in John’s Gospel where Jesus gives the Samaritan woman water (Jn 4: 1-16), which is living water. Indeed, Catherine is explicit about living water symbolizing God’s life sustaining love. Catherine tells Alessa,
Take a vessel that you fill at the fountain, and drink at the fountain. If you did not replenish this water continuously, the vessel would become empty. So, God’s love is the fountain of living water. [that is, one must take that love in continuously or one becomes empty of God’s life-giving love]. (Letter 49, Fall 1377)
Cell: dwelling place carried wherever we go
To a monk, Catherine describes the cell as a dwelling we carry wherever we go; this is an explicit reference to the fact that the cell is an inner experience, a place of consciousness within; and since this is the case, it is possible to enter this dwelling, that is engage in the inner experience, no matter where we are.
With desire to see you dwelling in the cell of knowledge of self and of the goodness of God within you. This cell is a dwelling place that persons carry with them wherever they go.
He has become a lover of the cell; he delights in praying the psalms within it in humble, continuous prayer, and so has made of the cell a heaven. (Letter 37, end 1377)
Catherine asserts that if we faithfully practice seeking connection with God, the experience will become so meaningful and important, delightful, says Catherine that we will seek it constantly. The knowledge of God and self, fruit of connection to God is “heaven.” That is, the experience is filled with peace, contentment, joy, safety. In short the discipline of turning to focus on inner experience may be an effort at first or at times, but it is ultimately an experience that offers such consolation that we seek it with anticipation.
Cell of the side of Christ
In a letter to novices of the Olivetan Benedictine monastery, Catherine advises dwelling in the cell of the side of Christ.
I point you to the cell of the side of Christ where you will find knowledge of yourself and his goodness. . . . Advance, go in and remain in this sweet space; for if you remain in this space there will be no evil or creature that can distance you from grace nor prevent you from arriving at your destination of seeing and tasting God. (Letter 36, April 1376)
The side of Christ as open wound is a metaphor for an entrance into or path to the heart of Christ where one will experience God’s love as salvific. For the wound of the side of Christ is also a metaphor for Jesus’ giving his life for us. Out of this wound water poured out indicating that all blood, and therefore all life (to the Hebrews blood=life) had been poured out. Thus, to enter the side of Christ and make a cell there suggests the experience of focusing our inner consciousness on Jesus’ welcoming, receptive love (the wound is open to reach the heart, love), while at the same time being present to the salvific dimension of that love; (that is, Jesus’ life has been given for us). If our consciousness rests in this reality of God’s love holding us in being and in the absolute conviction that this love is that which saves, then we cannot be derailed from the path to fulfill who we are meant to be as images of God. These are powerful images for seeking and staying present to God’s love as transforming.
Cell: empowers mother of prayer and growth in virtue
This passage, addressed to nuns from two different monasteries, highlights Catherine’s insistence to many correspondents that the practice of spending time in the cell is essential to continuous prayer, “the mother of prayer.”
Deprive yourself of levity of mind and vanity of heart and instead go to spend time in the cell; there you can enter into the mother of prayer, which will help you to grow in virtue. (Letter 217, October 1377)
Continuous prayer—a term which describes a multifaceted dimension of the spiritual journey—most essentially refers to an ongoing awareness of the reality of God and the capacity to access that awareness easily at any time. Such ease of connection with God is one of the goals of the spiritual journey as it allows the person to be responsive to God’s guidance and transformation.