A Life Outside of Time

Pico Iyer


A hermitage in Big Sur, California

FIVE YEARS AGO, 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.

And where every moment is particular, so too is every movement: the skittering of a white-tail rabbit through the grass; the alighting of a bluejay upon a plant; the wisp of the cloud that's curling round my terrace. For the monks, the day is marked out by the pattern of their worship; for the rest of us, it is marked only by the tolling of a bell. One learns to tell the hour as a mariner does, by the light above the sea.

There are, of course, many dangers to living too long in so protected a retreat, so far removed from daily strife. Any serious monk does not seek to leave the world but merely to step out of it a while, the better to see it, and return, with new strength and a clear direction. Solitude is only as good as the compassion it releases. The monks here share the insights of their reflections in counsel and in writings. For a visitor, though, the experience is not merely regeneration, but recollection: a chance, quite literally, to gather oneself again and recall what is important. Days spent within the code of chastity, poverty, and obedience feel sensuous and rich and free.

Occasionally, a car labors up the steep road that leads up from the narrow highway far below; occasionally, the lights of the hermitage go out. Yet the beauty of the monastery is that nothing ever changes, because there is nothing that can change. I have been here in all seasons and all climates: in winter, when the rain hammers on the roof, in summer, when the flies are so thick you cannot sit; on misty mornings, and on singing days. Yet what the monastery offers is simple enough, at heart, to seem inviolate: a jubilee of colors, and, at night, a sense of the universe as a bowl of stars, rounded, protected somehow, and alight.

The clocks "moved forward" while I was staying in the hermitage this year, but I, like the fox who visits my terrace every night, knew nothing of it. The baseball season started, new governments were formed, Presidential candidates came and went. But nothing disturbed the monastery, where white-hooded monks sing prayers at dawn as they might have done ten centuries ago. Many religious groups are approaching the end of the millenium with great apprehensions, fearful of the end of the world; in the monastery, every day feels like the birth of a new world—and a return to an ancient one. In that sense, it is an anti-millenarian place, finding no meaning, or solace, or threat, in the arbitrary timing of calendars. The monastery will be here in the year 2000 and, one hopes, in the year 2092. And the mere presence of a sanctuary is as important as the voyage there: to know that bread is handy means one never need go hungry.

Pico Iyer is the author of
Video Night in Kathmandu (Random House) and The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (Knopf).

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