Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Contemplating Bunnies in Big Sur

I had a few minutes before Vespers, and so I strolled along the lane leading into New Camaldoli Hermitage for another look at the Pacific Ocean. It stretches before you, a span of 180 degrees wide, two miles down the hill, an awesome sight that cannot be captured in a camera.

Out of the corner of my eye I spied movement in the periwinkle (or vinca, a non-native brought by early pioneers), a flash of brown and a white tail. The bunnies were out for their evening meal. If I stood very still they could not see me, and I watched the adults and children feasting on the plants on both sides of the road. Then the chapel bell tolled for prayer and I moved, startling them into escape mode. Seconds later they were gone.

I am here on this remote and beautiful coast for five days, my private retreat a gift from a group of pilgrims I guided through India earlier this year. They included Fr. Raneiro, the prior of this Camaldolese hermitage that has been here for fifty years. The order was founded over a thousand years ago in the mountains of Camdoli in Italy by St. Romuald, whose advice to his hermits was: "Sit in your cell as in Paradise; put the whole world behind you and forget it; like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch, keep a careful eye on your thoughts."

My cell is built of cinderblocks, a six-sided hexagon which is slightly disorienting at first. Besides the sleeping area, central living room with gas heater, kitchen nook and bathroom, there is an additional room for celebrating mass, solo. I sit by the window reading in an overstuffed chair that reclines, while outside in the fenced garden I can hear the murmur of humming birds and bees hard at their Spring chores. It is very private and relatively quiet.

I came here to think about what I will do next in my life, but find myself torn between the vivid immdiacy of nature and the lure of the laptop screen. Yes, the monks are plugged into the internet and a wireless connection enables their access. There is no cell phone reception on this barren coast, but dish antennae pull in satellite signals from around the globe. Adult web sites, however, are forbidden within the cloister (how I found that out will remain a mystery).

Besides the bunnies, I've been captivated by the foxes here. I've seen them on previous visits. Once a trio of them frollicked on the patio of the retreat room where I was staying at the time. Probably it was the bread I left that earned me their attention. This fox was sunning itself in the road until I came upon him (or her) on a morning's walk. I stopped and stared; he stared back. Only when I moved to pass by did he leisurely retire into the brush. Besides the foxes, there is bird life: the doves that live among the orange trees, and the paired quail that feed along the path to my cell. I have been visited by several cats which Br. Isaac said were dumped off at the Hermitage this past Christmas as kittens. Jackie told me she once saw a mountain lion but Fish said all such sightings had to be verified by a monk or they were discounted, and this was a solo report. Coyotes have not been seen or heard for years, but tarantulas come out on the road every year before the first rain falls.

New Camaldoli is not a large community, and people come and go. I missed Br. Mark , a wonderful artist who had made bracelets out of sandlewood beads for everyone, and was told he had left after nearly ten years. Before coming here, Mark had lived in a Hindu ashram back east. Fr. Robert is on pilgrimage in Ireland with a group co-led by Amber. Isaac had shaved his head and no longer had the most hair of any monk. Fr. Bernard, afflicted with Parkinson's, seems a bit more frail than the last time I was here in the fall, but it is touching the way his brother monks tenderly care for him.

Visitors besides me include Louie Vitale, the tall and thin Franciscan priest in his 70s who has led protests at the Nevade nuclear test site and at the School of the Americas in Georgia. He is currently facing charges for felony tresspassing at a military base in Arizona where he demonstrated against the teaching of torture to the officers trained there. Louie is no stranger to prison because of his moral stance on social justice issues. We had a great conversation about listening to live jazz in the 1950s in Los Angeles when he was a sociology grad student and I was going to high school in Pasadena. Sitting across from me at lunch after mass on Sunday was Lynn whom I last saw on the trip to Guatemala for Habitat for Humanity two years ago. She now lives in Boston but returned to Guatemala again recently with Peter and Betty who have been leading Habitat trips for a dozen years. Also staying here is Ralph Ferreira from Durban, South Africa. His spiritual director was a student of Fish, the dynamic South African priest Michael Fish, who gave the homily on Sunday when he spoke of wine as a catalyst for love (shades of Rumi!). Ralph is visiting for two months to see if the community suits him, and we talked over a dinner of leftovers in the kitchen about music. He likes Donny Hathaway, a now obscure soul singer with whom I worked at Atlantic Records in the 1970s. Music is indeed the universal language.

The day begins here with Vigils at 5:30 in the morning. The weather has been perfect during my visit, May at its best, and the indigo blue of the pre-dawn sky is breathtaking, with the half moon accompanied by a sprinkling of stars. The monks in white robes sit in two rows facing each other, and behind them the retreatants take their positions, rubbing eyes still sandy with sleep. The chanted Psalms and the ancient Gregorian tones dig deep into the psyche, prying loose half-forgotten glimpses of eternity. After the half-hour service, some retire into the rotunda of the sanctuary to sit on benches or cushions for meditation and contemplative prayer before Lauds at 7. Daily mass is usually at 11:30 (11 on Sundays). Vespers comes at 6 in the evening, followed by a half-hour of stillness before the Blessed Sacrament. Bells mark the movements of the monks and outline the shape of each day which rarely changes.

I have been drawn to monasticism since my visit one wintery weekend to Saint Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts in 1984 at the suggestion of Br. David Steindl-Rast whom I had met at the Benedictine Grange in Connecticut. My friend Steve, who had introduced me to David, drove us up to his cousin's house near the monastery where we stayed while attending a weekend retreat with the late Fr. Theophane Boyd. The Abbey under Thomas Keating, with the help of the late Basil Pennington, had given birth to Centering Prayer, and Boyd was a leader in the ecumenical movement, arranging for exchanges of monks between Asia and the U.S. I was prepared for the beauty and spirituality of the place from reading the works of Thomas Merton, but I was overwhelmed by the way Catholicism quickly took over the direction of my spiritual journey. The following year, having returned to California, I joined an RCIA program in Santa Cruz to prepare for initiation in the Church. And I organized a retreat for west coast members like myself of the Schola Contemplationis, a network of "contemplatives in the world" organized by Beatrice Bruteau and Jim Somerville, to be held at what was then called the Immaculate Heart Hermitage in Big Sur. The prior at that time, Fr. Bruno Barnhart, gave us a conference and he has been a friend and advisor to me ever since.

Recently I saw the much acclaimed documentary "Into the Silence" which was filmed at a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. One of the strictest of orders, the monks there lead a life of silence in close touch with the natural world. The monks of New Camaldoli, while surrounded by nature (several times the hermitage has been threatened by brush fires), live a less restrictive life. Silence is respected by not required. Except for major feast days, the diet is vegetarian, but the deserts at lunch on Sundays are to die for: pies, cakes and several flavors of ice cream. Monday was a "recreation day" and lunch included both beer and wine. Several of the monks have extensive video collections, and the extra-curricular conversations in the kitchen are wide-ranging and full of humor.

As befitting hermits, most of the monks at New Camaldoli keep to their cells. There are 24 in four rows, each with a private garden. The Hermitage is getting a little worn at the edges after fifty years and a major reconstruction program is at the fund-raising stage. My cell is the guest cell and could use a little attention. The garden is overgrown, and the bathroom floor is sagging from a leaky toilet. But my accomodation is well stocked with most of the necessities of life, and what's not here can be obtained in the kitchen.

I suppose some retreatants pray non-stop, but that is not my style. I bought a pile of books and some DVDs, along with my laptop, and have kept busy. Morning showers, mid-day walks and afternoon naps are not unknown to me, but here they are more leisurely and, dare I say it, contemplative. I've finished two Travis McGee mystery novels by that cultural critic of the 60s and 70s, John D. MacDonald, a recent discovery, and I'm reading Bishop John Shelby Spong's challenging new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, which attempts to demolish the myths and explanations of Christianity to recapture the original experience of Jesus by his followers. It seems a bit heretical to be reading the rebel Episcopalian's radical theology in this most devout of spaces, but I'm sure some of the monks might agree with his conclusions. I've also brought with me Ken Kramer's new book, Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and Sam Hamill's new translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, enough to keep me going for a half dozen retreats. In the evenings I've watched videos: the delightful "Iron Ladies," a Thai film about a transvestite championship volleyball team; the sad but enlightening documentary, "Iraq in Fragments," which focuses on people trying to survive among the chaos, and "Lady Vengeance," the final installment of South Korean director Park Chan-woo's revenge trilogy (while a bit violent, his work is surprisingly philosophical and critical of easy conclusions; the plots are startling and often comical. Seoul may become the new Hollywood). And I also bought with me a copy of Thai for Beginners and a Thai writing workbook along with some supplies to make flash cards for memorizing the Thai alphabet.

My retreat is still in progress, so the blinding light of illumination may come a little later. Right now, the world looks pretty good to me, just as it is, bunnies & foxes, web surfing at the monastery and watching South Korean slasher flicks. Participating in the rituals at the monastery is comforting, the regularity, the seriousness of piety. It is tempting to lapse into theistic bliss. But I continue to peel back the onion of spirituality. I think Bishop Spong is right, the Christian package is old and outdated. No one can believe the literal explanations any longer. We need to experience the mystery, not analyze it, and when it comes it may look not unlike a John D. MacDonald plot.