I went to the hermitage for an escape: a silent hermitage to encounter a quiet space, differentiated from the world surrounding me. I knew that some individuals have ‘mystical experiences’ in places like these. And while I did not expect to see God, I expected, in some sense, that the quiet time would be profound. Quiet that alludes to an absence, the ‘unscathed,’ or the untouchable (as some people think): sure; the sacred, hastily. Quiet that avoids the profane, whatever that means. I escaped to the hermitage as a set-apart place for a set-apart experience, under the rule of silence. Soon after arriving, I decided that it would be a good time to address my so-called “spiritual life,” because I had, here, little else to do.
Sunrise hike, day two. A small, half-mile looping trail overlooked the ocean in Big Sur, with fog climbing up to the small peaks that rose from the ocean. I slowly walked this path, making note of the lenses to bring tomorrow for different pictures, and saw a sign: “Hermitage Boundary.” I did not cross it. I came here for the hermitage experience, for the enchantment under the spell of the hermitage silence, so, maybe, I thought, leaving the hermitage would ruin the whole point. I came here to constrain myself, under a rule that I heard was significant, to encounter that experience. I made note of the sign and continued on.
Afternoon, day two. I walked down the road of the hermitage, stopping at a tree to look at the ocean. I leaned against the tree. And maybe I had the set-apart experience here or realized the utter constructedness of my experience here: I came to a hermitage, chose to be silent (just as the monks, for a longer time, chose to be silent), and stayed within the boundaries of the hermitage to encounter some *silent experience* because others, before, came here to do the same. That was it; everything else was empty. And of course I knew this, but I expected something more: that the experience would signify something transcendent. Here, I realized how silly it was—that silly expectation that this experience was anything other than choosing to sit in silence in Big Sur (would I encounter the sacred here? Would I become enlightened?). But the experience was not profound; only simple. And under the tree, I’d say that my spiritual life came back, only that there was nothing spiritual about it.
Sunrise hike, day three. I stopped and stared at the sunrise, on the same trail, until the sun rose above the mountains. The fog swarmed in quickly after. I finished taking pictures and crossed the hermitage boundary and hiked through the weeds. There was nothing there, really. I left the hermitage early because I was free to do so. No expectation of sanctity. No internalized constraint, I guess.
What we have, I think, is a strange expectation that slices the world into a grid. A grid that centers on what we might call the sacred: the ineffable, the ungridded, the fact of the world which makes the world possible. It orders the rule of silence. And even the ungridded—the sacred at the center, which might order this grid and while at the same time eluding it (how can the ungridded order the grid; how can the grid be centered on the ungridded? That is the problem!)—takes place in this grid, so that it is valued above the rest. Do we not see the trouble here? We see a tower to reach the sacred where, in reality, there is no tower; an unlimited sanctity that delimits itself through expectation, if only so that we could experience it.
So, focus on this unbounded sanctity. Some, like Richard Jones, argue that the experience of the sacred or the encounter with the divine (I guess I missed this experience) only contains two qualities unique to the experience itself: a sense of self-lessness (not other-regardingness) and detachment. That monastic method of losing the sense of self and detaching from the world is the only thing that the sacred guarantees. And sure, the experience that follows this sense might be ineffable, beyond our capacity for thinking and contextualization and meaning, so, for some, it contains a quality of ultimacy. Or others say that encounter with this detachment (aimed at the sacred, set-apart, untouchable quality) is “an attempt to escape the human condition.” Or maybe the encounter with the sacred brings a limit experience, a gateway to liminality, discarding all delimitations, or a mechanism of social unity, if you follow Bataille or Turner or Durkheim; an entry into a “vast waste,” following Buber; the center of irreducible meaning if you’re a phenomenologist; a way of knocking on the door of the divine. Further, John Caruana speaks of “the seduction of the sacred,” in its promise to “provide direct access to the supernatural,” as if the sacred is extricable from the natural world we find ourselves in (here: what counts as supernatural?). Maybe the sacred justifies our attempt to “escape the human condition,” but at a strange cost: a selfless detachment figuring to escape this whole life. Escape the life, shoot for the divine. A life eluding life, pointing. I will be frank here: this sanctity is not worth it to me (maybe it is still worth it for others).
For others, the sacred points to the unresolved finitude of a complicated life (still pointing!). For Emmanuel Levinas, the sacred ultimately consists of “a seething, subjective mass of forces, passions, and imaginings;” for Freud, the feeling of the sacred opens the door to a “pathological process,” or a return to infancy; for Caruana, who is just relaying the news, a threat against self-autonomy. The sacred is either not the sacred or just seductive trouble; requiring that, well, when we speak of it, we should actually mean it, referring to those irreducible qualities compromising the sacred, if they exist.
The only way to do this, then, it to put sanctity at a distance. To leave it unscathed by removing ourselves from it. Is not this distancing the act that comprises sanctity, though? Do we not make sanctity unscathed; by doing so, do we not scathe sanctity? There is trouble here, one that only leaves us in silence, unless we mar the sacred by our speech.
One more option. Maybe it is pathological, maybe it un-grids the order of the grid. Maybe it desacralizes the sacred. I’m only conjecturing here. Detachment and selflessness, the guarantees of sanctity, placed in service of the ‘other,’ reflect the other’s disconcerting power—the other as the one which requires detachment and selflessness to accept and address. Or, really, the sacred may merely be rescued by the distinction of the other, embodied in a particular humanity, not in a boundless divinity. Here, in confronting the other, there is no expectation of sanctity, boundlessness, oceanic feeling, passions, the supernatural, or whatever, but a concrete encounter with one who escapes the grasp of my mind, the grasp of myself, the grasp of artificial constraint. I do not know, though; maybe there is nothing spiritual about it.