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The monastic cell of marriage and family life

By Fr Donald Chambers

During my formative years, my mother was not an active parishioner except for Sunday Masses. As a home manager and wife, however, this woman of faith shaped our character, faith development, community awareness, and moral choices.

If my mother had minimal participation in parish life, what significant factor contributed to her faith development and the formation of our Christian family? Exploring this question was initiated by a reader’s feedback from my April 19 article ‘COVID-19 can be a transforming moment’ in which I challenged readers to embrace solitude as a means of quieting our inner restlessness.

In response, a reader wrote, “This may be an easy task for some but a challenging and scary undertaking for others. How can one manage that with the kids around, working from home and your job on the line?”

In taking on the challenge, I establish a conversation between my mother’s domestic spirituality and insights from Ronald Rolheiser’s 2019 book entitled, Domestic Monastery.

In this book, Rolheiser radically argues that if one defines a monastery as “a place set apart . . . to learn the blessings of powerlessness, and that time is not ours but God’s, then the home and our duties can. . . teach us those things.”

Prayer as withdrawal

In light of the definition of prayer, not as a set of activities, but as a ceaseless disposition towards God (Thes 5:17), Rolheiser radically proposes that, “If you are home alone with small children whose needs give you little uninterrupted time, then you don’t need an hour of private prayer daily. Raising small children, if it is done with love and generosity, will do for you exactly what private prayer does.”

Why? “The mother who stays home with small children experiences a very real withdrawal from the world. . . Her tasks and preoccupations remove her from the centers of social life and from the centers of important power. She feels removed.”

For my mother, prayer as withdrawal occurred at home alone cooking, washing, and cleaning. In these activities, she experienced communion with God. I recall, for example, one day I returned home from school and heard my mother singing religious songs and praying aloud while executing her house chores.

Concept of the bell

In the monastic tradition, the ringing of the bell is essential in beckoning monks to stop whatever they are doing and go immediately to the activity such as: prayers, meals, work, study or sleep.

Rolheiser posits that St Bernard intended the bell as “a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda.”   Consequently, “a parent hears the monastic bell many times during the day and has to drop things in mid-sentence and respond . . . because it’s time for that activity and time isn’t one’s own, but God’s.”

As a child who suffered from asthmatic attacks, my mother responded urgently to many “monastic bells”.  On one occasion, I remembered my father procrastinated in preparing the family car to transport me to the hospital. In desperation, my mother prepared to take the public transportation because she believed in responding to the monastic bell.

Concept of the monastic cell

The monastic cell refers to the monks’ private room, with its small cot, a single chair, a writing desk, a small basin or sink, and a kneeler. The idea behind the cell is that it is a place of great wisdom and learning.

For Rolheiser, the cell is a metaphor. He writes that the cell refers to duty, vocation, and commitment “where you need to go, and it will teach you everything you need to know.”

Drawing on an insight from Thomas à Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ which says, “Every time you leave your cell you come back less a person”, Rolheiser advises that “every time we step outside our commitments… we come back less a person for that betrayal.”

Hence, he exhorts, “stay inside your commitment . . . your family is a monastery, your home is a sanctuary… they are teaching you without constantly looking for life elsewhere and without constantly believing that God is elsewhere.”

Notwithstanding the financial, emotional, physical storms of marriage and family life, my mother remained committed. I strongly believed that her faithfulness to the ‘monastic cell’ of marriage and family life inspired the conversion of my father to live his faith in the Catholic Church in his early 70s.

If we embrace Rolheiser’s radical definition of these monastic practices, then the challenge to deeper prayer within the family during this COVID pandemic is possible. My mother’s life is a testimony to this.

While she had limited involvement in parish life, her living faith enabled her to form a domestic church/monastery that gave solid faith formation to her children while also facilitating the conversion of my father.

In the next article, I will explore the monastic tradition of prayer as ritual, routine and rhythm, the spirituality of parenting, and the sacredness of time.


Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.