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.

In this article, author Hedstrom synthesizes familiar literary sources, but the interesting angle is the use of philosophical categories from modern thinkers (Foucauld, Bachelard, Bourdieu, Lefebvre, Eliade) and from semiotics. 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.

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 negative aspect of a confined space that monitors and changes the occupant (Foucauld) is here transformed into a positive and active habitus, especially as expressed in the writings of Evagrius and Paul of Tammas, both of whom could skillfully move from private (cell) to public (monastery and church) spaces.

Hence the image or construct of the desert in the stories of the desert fathers (and mothers) is not the essential trope but was dependent on previous work cultivated in the habitus. The desert was not other-worldly as such but  a social relationship of monk to residence or building. This relationship parallels Kazi Ashraf's presentation (The Hermit's Hut: Architecture and Asceticism in India) of the relationship of hermit to hut in the ancient Indic world, for both Hedstrom and Ashraf study "the geography of asceticism."

Chronologically, the Life of Antony by Athanasius, "laid the foundation for the distinct nature of space occupied by Egyptian monastics." Hedstrom notes that this earliest work, succeeded by Evagrius, Palladius, the Apophthegmata, and John Cassian, set the expectations of  the entire eremitic movement and its goal of an "internalized cell of tranquility, or apatheia -- a place free from distraction."

The author makes an important point in arguing that the ordering of space and the focus on the cell as sacred space and setting of ascetic practice distinguishes the work of the early monastic writers from the essentially literary efforts of philosophical counterparts: Stoics, Epicureans, and Neo-Platonists. Nevertheless, the biographical and ascetic strictures in Athanasius's Life of Antony parallel those of Iamblichus's Life of Pythagoras. Athanasius held multiple interests, and wrote as "an admirer, not a practitioner." But the groundwork of themes "within recognized architectural boundaries" were laid by him.

Athanasius presents four essential steps in Antony's spiritual progress, grounded in forms of residence as "performative space":

  1. withdrawal from secular life;
  2. identification with monasticism; withdrawal into solitude and relocation to a tomb (confronting demons);
  3. withdrawal into solitude; relocation to an abandoned residence in community; finally,
  4. relocation to an inner desert site (Mt. Corzin).

Athanasius presents models of separation and relocation viable to future practitioners.

The first step is the decisive overview of the issue; the second step is educative work with a teacher; the third step is solitude to confront inner (and outer) demons, where no sacred space exists, but finally accomplishing the breakthrough and addressing visitors, edified by Antony's example. The fourth step represents the ideal remoteness of space, combination of work and prayer, the accompaniment of companions, and the occasional mountain descent to teach.

Modeled on an historical person, Athanasius thus telescopes the evolution of ascetic life culminating not in church or monastery but in measured solitude. Importantly, Athanasius demonstrates the appropriate space for each ascetic stage, based on the negative (battling demons) and the positive (communing with God). Athanasius expects that his reader will understand the relationship between transformative space and the self.

The Egyptian monastic authors of this era agreed: types of dwellings complemented the educative and transformative process. As the author states:

The emphasis upon the individual experience in one's cell suggests that the ecclesiastic structure, and the rituals tied to it, were not as effective in sustaining the ascetic in his spiritual journey as was the cell.

Hence wandering -- even that ascribed to Antony -- was discouraged and reproved, confirmed by later writers Cassian and Palladius. Many monks affirmed loyalty to the cell by not leaving it (the original anchorites), having disciples help them with necessities. Visitors to a cell could be a serious disruption and a threat to the sacrality of the cell.

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.

Paul of Tammas extends Evagrius's discussion. Paul's On the Cell is a manual -- not as well known in the West because Paul wrote in Coptic. Hedstrom notes the appropriateness of self-viewing and cultivation (Foucauld) in comprehending Paul's method, more advanced than Evagrius in many respects. Paul elevates the cell to sanctuary, virtually superseding the temple sanctuary and its prescribed disembodied ritualism. God dwells more happily in the cell than on the public altar, Paul seems to suggest.

While earlier writings posit the spiritual struggle and the sacrality of the cell, Evagrius and Paul of Tammas are explicit in identifying the cell with the inner recesses of the temple and the tabernacle. But Evagrius and Paul speak of paths that elude most contemporaries, accounting for the greater popularity of collections of sayings and practical advice versus their discussions of more esoteric stages.

"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.


Revisiting standard literary sources from a fresh philosophical perspective and a fresh framing of ascetics and their dwellings, author Hedstrom provides a helpful explication of monastic and eremitic thought in early Christianity.