4 - ENCLOSED WITHIN FOUR WALLS
By H.H. Pope Shenouda III
The following is a collection of articles entitled, "The Release of the Spirit" written by HH Pope Shenouda III for the Sunday School Magazine from the year 1951 before starting his monastic life.
These articles were published in the form of a book in the year 1957 including some of his poems which were published in the magazine as well..
It was his first published book and it gained the approval of many and was reprinted many times.
4 - ENCLOSED WITHIN FOUR WALLS
Spirituality in the desert or on the mount differs in its manner from spirituality in the city. One of the most troublesome bonds for a worshipper in the city is being enclosed within four walls.
I have experienced this myself when I was-some years ago on a camp in a desert spot called Almaza, a few miles from Heliopolis. I used to go up a hill in that desert with one of my brethren in the Sunday Schools for prayer and meditation. From that spot, within the range of vision on the horizon, appeared Heliopolis, that splendid suburb with its buildings, streets, road construction and the inhabitants as a tiny insignificant thing . Only lights were visible from that altitude .
We felt that our souls were set free from the limits of length, width and height, from splendor and magnificence, and from exaltation and elegance.. A splendid palace seemed to us the same as a small house, for nothing appeared as it was. We felt spiritual happiness and pleasure in sitting on the sand on that high hill, a happiness which we never felt in the city.
When we returned to Cairo on a holiday, I tell you truly, my beloved brother, I was disturbed by this noisy capital (Cairo). I walked in the streets feeling an out-bursting volcano in my head caused by the clamour of people and the noise of cars, trams and various means of transport. I recognised amidst this noise that I would not be able to think in an orderly, systematic and uninterrupted way as I did while on that high hill..
When I closed the door of my room and stood to pray, I was unable. The four walls of the room seemed a strong barrier which prevented me from enjoying God. So, I did not pray but I came out of my room and walked very far away trying to find a quiet high spot where no buildings existed and where few inhabitants and little civilization was found. After nearly an hour, I found a place which had a little of my requirement. I returned home depressed and longing for my high hill again..
The months of the camp ended and we returned to the city where I was forced to get used to pray within the four walls. Yet the memories of the high hill remained in my mind till now... To make up partly for this, I used to go up with my young friends after the Sunday lesson to the roof of the church to have a look on Cairo. We saw it from there also, in the darkness of the evening, nothing could be seen except the shadows of buildings with their white spots of light.
Your spirit, my beloved brother, wants to be set free, to fly like a bird which flies from one branch to another. It wants to be like the angels who are always singing praise to God without any bonds or restrictions. If you cannot attain this constantly, at least let this be on certain occasions...
This makes me imagine that meditation can be reached more easily and deeply by sailors, farmers and inhabitants of the mountains and deserts. I imagine also that we shall have the same ability when we get rid of the bonds of the body and go high into heaven where God, the angels and the saints are.
I discussed this matter with my father the monk and he revealed to me another spiritual, experience.. He told me how, at the beginning of his monastic life, he was secluded in his cell for twenty eight days encompassed within four walls seeing no one and dealing with no one. He spent that period in hard struggle between himself and God. It was really a hard time in which his soul was sifted but at last the spirit was able to come out- free from its numerous bonds and get to God.
Thereafter, the monk came out of his cell feeling that it was the same to him, to be encompassed within walls or to be free out of walls...
At this point, I reveal to you a deeper and more sublime level of spirituality.. The first level was feeling bored within the four walls.. but the next level is to be unaware of the four walls.. In this case you sit in your room so absorbed in your prayers, meditations or readings that you are no longer aware of anything around you. You live in another world beyond the senses. So, you do not know whether you are in your room or in an open space in the monastery and whether your cell has walls or not. You do not even know whether heaven has come down to you on earth or you went up to heaven while still on earth.
Let me whisper in your ears, my beloved brother, that there were certain persons who could not realise whether they were in the body or out of the body such as St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor.12:2), Saint John of Assiout and the spiritual old father..
The topic of the release of the spirit from the bounds of place, leads me to meditate on another subject which is 'the revelations'.
We have heard about the revelations experienced by St. John the Beloved and St. Paul the Apostle. The time is lacking to mention what was experienced by St. Anthony, St. Shenouda and the other saints who left their places and experienced living environments where they saw things which cannot be described or expressed in words
Here I remember a story told to me by one of our beloved brothers about a priest who was full of the spirit. When that priest was praying the holy Mass, he came to the words ".. he lifted his eyes up..." and he also lifted his eyes, and here... a deep silence prevailed in the church... Minutes passed while the holy priest was looking up in silence, astonishment and distraction. A long time passed and the congregation was silent looking at their priest attentively. Then the priest lowered his eyes and went on with his prayers deeply and fervently not aware of the pause which passed. When one of his followers told him after he finished prayers of what had happened and required him to explain the matter, he was confused and refused to reply. But pressing on him, the priest said that when he looked up, he saw the church as if with no dome or ceiling and there was a long ladder between the altar and heaven. He looked at it for just a second or more (as it seemed to him) and then went on with his prayers...
I wonder how some think of monasticism as a Way for ministry while I see it only as a way to heaven. In monasticism seclusion, contemplations, and continuous striving help the spirit to be released and united with God.
My beloved brother, I think there is still much to be said in his respect..
The Release of The Spirit
By H.H. Pope Shenouda III