New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur. 4PM Monday Nov. 15th- 1:30PM Thurs. Nov. 18th
I spent the week driving around California. The bay area, then Bishop, then, at last, Big Sur, where I stayed at a silent hermitage above Pacific Coast Highway. Here, I will reflect on my notes I took while briefly living in silence among monks. Fragmented in nature, this piece is more of a reflection than a narrative.
By the time I got to Big Sur, I had already made some of the reflections that set the tone for the silent retreat. First note. There is a quality to “emptiness,” (something like the Buddhist Sunyata)—that the ‘world,’ devoid of any labels or commentary or mental narratives, holds something like a compassionate presence. I wrote that this emptiness puts me in touch with the ‘good’ parts of myself.
Second note. I noticed that I do a good deal of rejecting certain experiences. That I expect a more meaningful life to come from choosing whatever is ‘more meaningful,’ which might mean spending a lot of time reading books instead of hanging out and living a more active life. I noted that this is not necessarily good—that I must become less intentionally ‘ascetic,’ because it would lead to a more honest life. That is, I must accept all thoughts and experiences that happen to me (this, in relation to social justice, does not call for an inactive passivity; but it does require an acceptance of the fact that an event happened, a thought occurred, etc.).
I arrived at the monastery, which, after driving through a thick fog along highway 1, was marked by a sign indicating “holy granola” two miles up a winding road next to the coast. I had a strange fear of silence driving up the long, steep road (I still do not know what this was). And I arrived at the hermitage, parking at the bookstore, so I could buy “An Ocean of Light” by Martin Laird and check in. I took a few pictures and went to the Vespers service at five—the only part of my day where talking, or chanting, was allowed, within the bounds of the service.
Imagine a room with mostly older men dressed in white robes. It is a room split in two, with one row of chairs on each side, then three rows of pews behind. Each side of the room faces the other. The men (the monks) sit in the first rows. All of the “retreatants” behind, as a quick service runs, its order indicated by a small paper referring to numbers a “Vespers” book. Plainchant rises, with scripture readings, and never, ever, have I felt that anything I’ve done was as cult-like as what I had just committed to: a room full of men—thirteen monks, thirteen retreatants, with maybe only three-or-four women, gathered together in a chapel, two miles from a long, reaching, no-service segment of highway one in Big Sur, south, a bit, of Lucia, where, somehow, I, 25, was the youngest person in the room. I pacified these thoughts a bit by critiquing the flippancy with which people use the word ‘cult,’ and wondered what it meant for something to actually be cult-like. I’m not quite sure. The service continued, and I tried to figure out which people in the room were gay (at the suggestion of one of Jeffery Kripal’s articles, where he notes his sense that the Catholic priesthood is very gay). And with this I knew that my spiritual life and sexuality had just merged (whatever that means).
The lights in an adjacent room flipped on—an octagonal room—with two broad steps down to a centered altar. A crucifix with a modern Jesus hung above it. And the monks filed in, then the retreatants on the step above, all facing the center, while a priest presided over the Eucharist. My Episcopalian knowledge remained slightly-off to this Benedictine order of service. And it became time to eat the body of Christ (pandemic routine: no blood of Christ, because we could not all drink from the same chalice). The presiding priest stood in front of the altar, and the monks all ate their bite-sized bit of Jesus. A stood there, nervous: I did not know which way to perform the cross gesture before bowing before the priest, nor was I ready to eat the Catholic body of Christ, which was literally Jesus (at the same time, realizing that I was detached and ironic). So, I walked up and bowed and ate the cracker and walked back to my seat, for two closing chants before a thirty-minute meditation.
All of the retreatants and two monks sat in the octagon room on rugs, pillows, benches, or any combination of those things. Meditation went normally. We were dismissed with a bell-chime to dinner (silently: soup and salad).
More notes: that it was an act of faith for me to renounce the faith. When I was coming out of the closet, my justification for questioning theologies on sexuality came from the Bible, where Paul talks about the fruits of the spirit. I also had the idea that if God was the creator of the world, of reason, of things, then God could withstand the skepticism and doubt that comes from a so-called “secular” religious studies education, or that God was deeply part of it, even if God's involvement was not immediately apparent. It was then, an act of faith to head down the road of renouncing the faith. (The problem: why was I at a Catholic hermitage??)
Second note: I do not like being alone. I also hold others to my own, impossible standards, which is isolating. Yikes.
Third note: “What the fuck am I doing at a silent hermitage retreat in Big Sur? I want to be at home, hanging out with friends. This reminds me of going to Christian winter camp, one time, when I was a kid. When I wanted to be separate from my family in a separate car but cried about feeling lonely when I left them. Yikes. But it was a prelude to a religious experience.”
Fourth: “I miss people, but I also miss being ‘me,’ so I’ll work on that for now—the other will follow.”
And, on the third note, I expanded: “I think ‘3’ opens itself to a question of faith. Because I don’t especially care for Christianity that much—much of Vespers made me skeptical—but (somehow) I am here. So, I’m here because I need ‘silence’ to work through my own ‘inner liar’—the ‘trauma’ or whatever? Or, I want to be embodied without being distracted by others. Ideally, this retreat was exciting. But knowledge distorts. Here I am, and it is just ‘real.’”
The next day, breakfast (oatmeal) and probably a small hike. I think I drove to a waterfall in Big Sur, after being nervous about leaving the hermitage (did that count as breaking the silence?). I came back, with the intention of figuring out spiritual life. So, here are the notes:
“Stillness has been, even if just ideally, a staple in my spiritual life. Hence I am here.” And, reflecting on something more recent, “my spiritual life has been a cluster of nuances. And that’s not exactly what the ‘spiritual’ part of spiritual life should be. These things take time though…getting back to the ‘spiritual’ part of it. Deconstruction is necessary, but life still has to be lived; in spite of theological and philosophical ideals—the things to deconstruct and think about—empathy, love, and suffering are still real.” I guess it takes stillness to realize this, to get in touch with these aspects of the self, beyond ideological distinctions.
Also, “can I allow myself to not have it all figured out and just live?”
And: “This strange retreat, as unusual, beyond the ‘norm,’ is still real life.” Here is a critique of the sacred, the holy, the set-apart: that we can drive to nature, to Big Sur, where there’s no cell service and monks in white robes and a weird form of silence, but it is still real life. It is no more holy than the everyday life. It is special in its ability to create stillness, a relaxation, a world that releases itself from the necessities and unconscious fabrications of daily life. From the demands of an anxious environment, or a modern condition. But it is not unique, other than the fact that the priests have chosen to create this space outside of a city.
Finally, for the day, “When I was driving through the Eastern Sierras three days ago, I was struck by an unbelief, or that this portion of the world wasn’t ‘real.’ And here I am now in Big Sur, in the thick of it—it cannot be anything but real. This retreat felt like a fever dream yesterday, as if I joined a cult, but today it is real.” I do not know what I meant by “real,” other than the fact that I was not distracted by another sense of what the world should be like. Here, a basic critique of the sense of the word cult appears: that a cult is just a small community that looks different from a secular, modern society. And so, as long as this cult looked different from whatever ‘norm’ I was used to, it did not feel real. But that day, I guess I realized that these, too, were human monks who ran the hermitage, who made the decision to follow this mysterious silent life. I mentally secularized this place, so that it felt real (do religious people mentally sacralize the world, in order to make it real?).
Wednesday. I did not make a note of this, but as I was watching the sunrise, I think I realized that my spiritual life came back. And I was happy and uncertain whether to use the word God for it and decided that it didn’t matter anyways. Not God, nor not-God (Is not "God" a word-gone-stale? A concept that lingers like a stubborn, persistent illusion? By the time it escapes our mouths, is it not inadequate?). I finished “Ocean of Light” before reading Gunilla Norris’ “Inviting Silence.” The bell rang for Vespers to begin.
I walked into Vespers, sat down, and one of the retreatants (the one other young guy) that I was attracted to was not there. I lost interest, and realized that the religious feeling, the curiosity that I had for this strange religious service, was fueled by sexuality. There is psychological research behind this, and I realized I had fallen into that trap of misplaced sexual desire.
I sat for the service, and when the one of the priests gave a sermon on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew’s Gospel, I became frustrated by his normal interpretation of it that trusts Matthew’s reading: that it is a parable about using the gifts God has given you well. But secretly, the passage sounded like Jesus’ critique of the socio-economic conditions of his time: that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The compiler of Matthew’s gospel seems to have failed to understand this message, and accidentally framed it as if those were principles of the Kingdom of God. (Can you imagine Jesus saying, with a straight face, as a normative principle of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” “‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest?”)
I realized that there was no originality, no creativity, no reflection to the priest’s sermon, and got restless, because silence is not an invitation to unreflective passivity—to suppress those intellectual parts of yourself that recognize when something is not quite right. Silence is not an invitation to legitimate religion as “the opiate of the people.” I took the Eucharist, staring into the priest’s moody face (because the lighting was ominous), and left eagerly to pull out the Bible in my room and check this parable for myself, so that I was not unjustly angry. And I pulled it out, everything interpreted in Catholic vernacular on the margins. It could hold at least two compelling interpretations: one corresponding to contemplative life, as a way of spiritualizing the text; the other corresponding to a critique of the socio-economic conditions of Jesus’ time.
And then, after Wednesday Vespers, I decided to grab dinner (soup and salad, again!). I did not know what I was going to do, because I felt as if I had finished what I came here to do. I felt as if this religion weren’t for me (I’m not Catholic! And I might as well stop trying to be Christian, or trying to be anything at all). And, thinking of the soup and silence, I remembered Simone Weil’s commentary on taking up poverty—that it was almost a privileged parody of those who were actually poor, and thought of how much of an empty performance it was that these retreatants (who all had very nice cars) decided to eat soup and salad in silence for an amount of time, as if it were a more spiritual way of living (one woman said she had been there for two weeks during allotted out-loud prayer time in Vespers). I decided that I would wait until the next morning, my last day, and buy some Holy Granola as I checked out (at 1:30 PM), while figuring out why I could not stand this place all-of-a-sudden: that maybe it was something to work out in silence. I wrote down, before entering the kitchen for dinner, “LOL I kinda just wanna leave. Might as well go camping.”
I entered the kitchen with my soup bowl and a spoon. As I was grabbing soup, an older man in the kitchen could not figure out how to use the microwave to heat up his soup. He pushed all the wrong buttons, reset the clock, and, frustrated, could not make the microwave work. Anxiously button-mashing, he finally asked me to help, because apparently it worked yesterday, and I simply punched in the time without button mashing. The plate spun and the soup heated. And I told him, “You just put in the time, do not push any other buttons.” And he said, “thank you.” Now, this might be an allegory for the contemplative life. He stole my spoon after, as I went to heat my soup up.
I wrote: “Helped an old man figure out how to use a microwave. He stole my spoon for soup. I SPOKE.”
And with this, I took more of their holy granola sample (that I was supposed to buy in the bookstore), packed up all my belongings, and left in the night, before my 1:30 PM checkout the next day. There is no virtue in silence. “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or the petals of a flower,” says Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In silence or speaking, it does not matter.
I drove down PCH until I got service, then checked my phone, feeling as if I had just escaped a cult—one that had no intention of coercion, no intention of harm, but just was abstracted from the life that I found myself a part of. Contemplation, supposedly, calls us out of ourselves (those siloed, abstract parts of self) into community, and I found myself driving away from the silent isolation enacted by a silent hermitage in Big Sur, connected back to a world no less sacred, no less real.