A Moment of Silence in Big Sur
A silent stay in a monastery is good
for the soul
The first thing I notice is the quiet. It begins the minute I turn off
my engine, step out of my car and onto the small dirt parking lot of the
New Coaldale Hermitage. It is a sudden, overwhelming quiet that takes
me aback. I am unnerved, unaccustomed to
this kind of stillness.
Even on the quietest nights in the San Francisco neighborhood where I
live, there is constant, familiar ambient background noise--the hum of
cars driving by, muted conversations and laughter of people passing under
the window, the doleful, distant blare of a fog horn in the Golden Gate.
Here, there is the muffled crunch of leaves underfoot, the playful chirping
of birds, the
faint, the rhythmic breathing of the Pacific Ocean. The Hermitage, a monastery
of Camaldolese Benedictine monks, offers guests the prospect of silent
reflection and contemplation.
I look forward to getting away,
although as I drive the winding road
leading up to the retreat house, Im not exactly sure why I am here.
Im not searching
for any spiritual fulfillment or deep insights into the wild landscape
of my inner self. I
want to unplug my life from all of the electronic devices
that connect me to the world,
to live, even for a few days, a more simple existence. At the very least,
I want some peace and quiet.
But instead of the calm and tranquility that I expect to feel, I am steadily
overcome by a wave of anxiety. Three
whole days spent in silence? No music? No talking? It sounds
more like a prison sentence. How long could I last? What in the hell would
I do with myself?
Piece of Sky
My anxiety subsides moments after I walk through my room and step out
into the private garden. Perched high on a mountainside, the retreat rooms
command a spectacular view of the Big Sur coast. I have my very own piece
The view alone was enough. Above, a falcon circles in wide swaths.
A deer wanders by the garden, rustling leaves along the trail. A swarm
of bees competes with a handful of hummingbirds for the sweet nectar of
primeval century plant just beyond the garden. A parade of chirping partridges
by in single file. The silence and the stillness of the place beckon me
I keep me busy on the first day out of sheer curiosity and the novelty
of the place. I
walk the grounds of the Hermitage, alongside the entrance road, find a
secluded spot on a bench facing the coast. I read Gary Synder and Robinson
Jeffers. I write in my journal. I pull out my sketchpad and draw. A few
hours later, the clang of the Hermitage bells calls me to lunch, the main
meal of the day. Walking back toward the retreat house, I pass by the
other guests, a middle-aged Japanese couple and an American college student.
Hello, I say with a smile, forgetting for a moment the rules
about silence. The couple smiles and nod. The college kid ignores me.
Lunch is laid out for us buffet style in the cramped kitchen of the retreat
house. We manage to maneuver around each other without any spills or mishaps.
No Speaking at Dinner
It is a strange dance of averted glances and awkward contortions made
to avoid any human contact. I want someone to pass me a fork and the balsamic
vinegar. I hold back the reflex to open my mouth and speak.
How odd and unnatural, I think, to be in such close proximity to others
and avoid conversation. But then again, I think, whens the last
time you spoke to a stranger in an elevator? I take the meal in my garden,
savoring every bite. Lunch is a delicious vegetarian affair. Everything
seems to taste that much better outside. The fog creeps closer to the
coastline, biding its time.
There is no formal retreat program at the Hermitageno breathing
workshops, no meditation sessions, no yoga classes. This is, after all
a monastery. Guests are invited to join the monks in their services, but
participation is not required and the monks leave you alone once youve
checked in. In the late afternoon, I attend the Vespers service. The main
room of the Chapel is spartan, like the rest of the Hermitage. At this
hour, the light filters though the Chapel and bathes the room in a warm,
orange glow. The austere beauty is heightened by the whispered prayers
and the sweet-sounding lamentations of the chanting monks.
Even for the non-religious, it is an affecting ceremony. I can appreciate
power of ritual.
Losing Track of Time
I start to lose it on day two. The morning brings a maddening fog that
coast and envelopes the Hermitage. A chill settles down on the mountain
and grey-white clouds shroud the trees. I can barely see past the century
plant outside my garden.
After breakfast I lose track of time completely, I stay in my room and
struggle to find
ways to bide the time.
Having read both books I brought with me, I read in succession the monks
letter to guests, the Hermitage newsletter, the instructions for how to
make coffee, the procedures for checking out. I get my wallet and begin
pulling out old receipts and business cards. I clean out my backpack.
Desperate for more reading material, I scan the walls and find the plaque
bearing the words of Saint Rouald, the founder of the Coaldale order.
I read his Brief Rule for Camaldolese Monks: Sit in your cell as
in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your
thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
I read the words again. They start to sink in. I make myself a cup of
tea and despite
the chill outside and the damp grass, I sit in the garden and I wait for
things to come
Stripped of all distractions, of all human interaction, I have no choice
but to go inside
myself. But without any guidance, I feel a bit lost. Contemplation is
difficult. Quieting the mind was work, much harder than Id anticipated.
Every thought, every idea, every ruminations led to dozens more. Soon
my mind was cluttered with unwanted thoughts from my life. In my minds
eye, I see the To Do list on my Palm Pilot: Trash bill overdue.
Replace the dryer. Buy wedding presents. Get a new computer. The anxiety
of yesterday returns.
I sit and I wait. And slowly, things start to come.
The perpetual, vexing bonds of family. The having of dreams and their
fulfillment. The possibility of happiness, and if not that, then ordinary
contentment. The elusive nature of love. The sustaining power of friendships
both near and far. The fragility of human bonds. This fleeting world.
Living life in an instant. Oh my, I am closer to 40 than I am to 20. Mortality.
By now, time has begun to slow for me. Minutes seemed to take hours to
pass. My journey has only just begun. It would be a stretch for me to
say that Ill come away from here with any real sense of enlightenment,
or that Ill achieve a significant level of self-awareness. But for
the first time in a long while, I am open to the roads that lead inward.
I am grateful for the gift of silence. I am learning something of being
mindful, I understand what Rilke said when he wrote, truly being
here is everything.
I have another day at the Hermitage. I know that Ill soon return
to my life. Ill turn on my computer, sync my Palm Pilot, make phone
calls, and send emails across the web. But the world can wait. That is
Now, the fog pulls back away from the shore. There is the miraculous Big
Sur sky unfolding before me, a luminous blue ocean, birdsong, the rustle
of leaves in the breeze.
I close my eyes and breathe in the sounds at the continents edge.
Augusto Andres writes
from San Francisco.