A hermitage in Big Sur, California.
A hermitage in Big Sur, California.

Five years go, I traveled to Kyoto to learn about stillness and focus in the Zen temples whose pictures I had long admired. What I quickly learned was that Zen required much more commitment and rigor than the postcards could suggest: dilettantes need not apply. Returning to California, I stumbled, without meaning to, upon a small Benedictine hermitage high above the sea in Big Sur. There, a few hours away from my home, I found much of the spaciousness I had gone halfway around the world to find.

It is hard to imagine that time—or anything else—exists, here in this silent hermitage above the California coast. No newspapers are delivered, and no telephone ever rings. There is not really an address. Days on end pass without the sound of a single voice. From where I sit I cannot see a trace of human habitation: just trees, birds, the sea beyond. Everything is resolved into absolute simplicities: blue sky, blue sea, and silence.

The monks lead a simple, contemplative life, alone for the most part in their cells, reading, meditating, or in prayer. They follow the rule laid down by Saint Benedict in the sixth century, and extended by Saint Romuald five hundred years later: “Sit in your cell as in Paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts as a good fisherman watches for fish.” There are no pious airs here, and most of the twenty or so monks in residence seem cheerful, friendly souls. They serve ice cream and cookies on Sundays and talk, when they talk, of Raymond Chandler or of a trip to Thailand. A Deadhead is given lodgings to do odd jobs around the property, and a recluse comes down from the hills now and then to fix the water pipes.

The brothers are “catholic” enough, in the highest sense, to see that everyone belongs here, and so keep nine rooms open to the public. All types assemble for a taste of silence—Buddhist nuns and Oxford scholars, sports car drivers and even journalists. Each follows his own discipline in his cell, free to attend vigils and vespers if he wishes, free to spend all his hours with whatever he finds uplifting: the Bible or a Sufi text, Emerson or the memory of a love. The brothers let people of any (or no) religious background stay here because, I suspect, they know that everyone will come into contact with something that they need.

Beyond even the grand extension of space, the great luxury of the monastery is that it takes one out of time: yesterday is tomorrow is next week. Is it the year 1631, or 2142? One doesn’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Time is suspended here, and with it, an identity formed by time: no longer Tom Time-bound, born in 1952, with a twelve-o’clock lunch date tomorrow, one is at some level essentialized. Time itself, one sees, is all momentary, a passing of moments: it is only what is out of time that lasts. The bulldozer of the passing hours razes everything before it except what is below-ground or invisible.

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