Cell at Dionysiou
This is a view of a cell from the door looking into the sparsely furnished room in which light from a single window penetrates the gloom. The Dionysiou Monastery, located near the south end of the west coast of the peninsula, was founded in 1356-62 by a Greek monk named Dionysios from Kastoria with support from Alexios III Comnenos.1
A cell is the monk’s solitary living space, as well as his individual oratory. It has a very simple interior with white plastered walls and wooden furniture and floors. Minimal furnishing like a chair, bed and shelves accentuates monks’ ascetic life. Although this cell is unadorned, going back as far as the fifth or sixth century in Coptic Egypt, monk’s cells such as those at the Monasteries of Apa Apolo and Apa Jeremias, could be equipped with both portable icons and mural paintings with figural images and crosses designed to help the monk focus his prayer.2
The English term, cell, derives from the Latin coelom, meaning “heaven.”3 The monk, through prayer, can encounter heaven in his room. Monks on Mount Athos are mostly cenobitic; they attend regular liturgy several times a day, dine in the refectory, but these communal activities are balanced by time alone. Monks return to the cell during the middle of the day and after compline to be with God, by cultivating stillness. Saint Theodosius the Great Ascetic advices the monk “You must avoid continuously wasting time outside your cell, if you have indeed chosen to practice stillness.”4
Light plays an important role in the cell. Interest in light is a central principle in Byzantine worship and Christianity. In the gospel of John the Baptist, Jesus announces, “I am the light of the world (8:12; 1:9).” Natural light coming through the window of the monastic cell is therefore understood as a way to reach the divine and overcome the darkness and evil thoughts. Illias the Priest describes how “the sun rising over the earth creates the daylight venerable and holy name…shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless intellections as radiant as the sun. He who contemplates the light which transcends every intellect…has been granted to some extent a vision of the divine light.5 The nature of natural light refers to the cycle of time, life, death and resurrection, which all emphasizes the connection with the spiritual seeking of stillness.
The model sayings of the early practitioners of asceticism collected in the Philokalia, and regularly read by Athonite monks, emphasize the importance of being in perfect stillness, “the basis of the soul’s purification” and “undisturbed state of intellect”.6 Stillness is the precondition for Theosis, that is, becoming one with God. The cell is the place where perfect stillness can happen. Monks sit down in a quiet cell, every day and night, withdraw their intellect from everything worthless and transient. Their spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment.7 Furthermor, as Saint Thalassios the Libyan emphasizes, “stillness and prayer are the greatest weapons of virtue, for they purify the intellect and confer on its spiritual insight.”8 The cell is the place for spiritual training and for reflection upon one’s spiritual and mental discipline. Life in the cell refers to the duty, vocation and commitment. But ultimately it is also the place for the darkness of the Devil to be dispelled so that the monk can contemplate the divine uncreated light that is reflected in the natural light entering into the cell.
Bolman, Elizabeth S. “ Depicting the kingdom of heaven: paintings and monastic practice in early Byzantine Egypt” Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700. Ed. Roger S. Bagnall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2007) 408-433.
Brown, Peter L. The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)
Smith, Allyne with G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Bishop Kallistos Ware, editors and translators, Philokalia. The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. Selections Annotated and Explained (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2015)
1Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal of Paradise, 74-75.
2Bolman “Depicting the kingdom of heaven: paintings and monastic practice in early Byzantine Egypt.”
3Smith et al, Philokalia,122.
4Saint Theodoros the Great Ascetic II, in Smith et al, Philokalia, 171.
5Illias the Presbyter, in Smith et al, Philokalia, 115
6Saint Peter of Damaskos, Treasury of Divine Knowledge, in Smith et al, Philokalia, 175.
7Saint Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination, in Palmer et al, Philokalia, 193.
8St. Thalassios the Libyan, On Love, Self-Control, and Life in accordance with the Intellect, in Smith et al, ed. Philokalia, 171.