The Geography of the Monastic Cell

The ever invaluable “Hermitary” offers a review of Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom. “The Geography of the Monastic Cell in Early Egyptian Monastic Literature” in “Church History”, vol. 78, no. 4 (Dec. 2009), p. 756-791:
Hermits cell 1
“The geography of the monastic cell is identification of optimal space for the monk and hermit to pursue their project. The spatial importance of the cell in the early centuries of Egyptian monasticism evolves into the identification of the essential location for seeking God. “The dwelling facilitates true monastic work: the cultivation of a self aligned with God and fellow monastics.”

The cell is a panoptic residence. First, the cell teaches, functioning as a center of training and self-discipline. As habitus (Bourdieu), the cell harbors “dispositions or attitudes and behaviors,” in turn becoming self-reinforcing memories. Within monasteries, the cell refines the entire enterprise or habitus of the monastery, of the entire community.
Secondly, the special character of the cell provides a protocol with respect to visitors (monks, superiors, novices, never lay persons); early monastic cells were not entirely solitary. Visitors reinforced the sacrality of the cell. The intentions of the occupant transform the cell or place into a sacral space (Lefebvre). While temple and shrine transform from public places to sacred spaces through the interactions of visitors, so, too, the cell “becomes the essential area for living asceticism.” The intimate space represented by the cell “becomes the essential area for living asceticism.” The intimate space represented by the cell is a product of the occupant’s “thoughts, memories, and dreams,” conceived within the given space.
Hermits cell 5
Thirdly, the sacrality of the cell “led to internalization of the cell within the heart and mind of the monk.” At this point, the monk has moved beyond the physicalness of the cell space, so that what the cell represents is now the mind and soul itself. This is the deeper meaning of the famous advice: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything…
The cell already harbored potential challenges. In his Prakticos, Evagrius helpfully describes essential routines for the ascetic’s habitus, and warns against listlessness, restlessness, anxiety, resentment, despondency — in short, acedia. In this context, the physicality or materiality of the cell does not matter as much as that of the occupant. The sacralization of the space only comes with the activity of the occupant…
Hermits cell 2
“As monastic space became less angelic and more worldly — or susceptible to daily concerns for property, inheritance, and ownership in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries,” concludes Hedstrom, a decline deflects the modern historian’s interests away from the topic of ascetic practices and more toward tangible archaeological interests. But the monastic search for the ideal habitus continues, as it should.”
Hermits cell 3
“The physical space of the cell was an area set aside exclusively for the monastic. As seen in the Sayings , the praxis adopted by an ascetic varied depending upon the individual; such an accepted policy showed tolerance for the struggles that each person faced. However, the location where the praxis was followed remained constant. Regardless of one’s experience, each monk understood the cell was the arena in which true spiritual progress could be made. The conditioning and restructuring of the person by adoption of the monastic habitus illustrates the emphasis placed upon locative transformation. I have suggested that the most complex dimension to the discourse of space in these sources was the belief that actions and images found within the physical cell were in themselves images of the interior, intangible realities of the cell, or dwelling, within. Training in the exterior life would manifest itself in the training of the interior will; by staying within the built cell, one could learn to stay in the presence of God. The Life of Antony speaks little of how Antony conceived of this final step of interpreting the use of his dwelling, but the sayings of the early Desert Fathers suggest that the monks were already transferring knowledge to encourage monks to seek God, to gaze upon God, and to dwell with God both in and out of the cell.
Hermits cell 4
For Paul of Tamma and Evagrius, the internalization and embodiment of the cell within the monastic was the foundation for salvation and progress in the monastic life. For others, this step may have eluded them their whole lives. This might explain why the apophthegms are more practical in their examples and why the writings of Evagrius and Paul exhibit a more developed and highly idealized view of what one could achieve with mental discipline in the cell.”
Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom. “The Geography of the Monastic Cell in Early Egyptian Monastic Literature” in “Church History”, vol. 78, no. 4 (Dec. 2009), p.790-791

Those with access to Cambridge Journals on-line can find the original paper at

It is also available on-line at:


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