Saturday, 29 November 2014

New Camaldoli Hermitage notebook

When I arrive one of the brothers gives me an orientation to the monastery. He shows me the chapel and which books to use for each service, he shows me my cell with its private garden looking out over the ocean, he explains the fireplace and the bells and the time for meals. He tells me what to do if a deer should come into my garden (don’t corner it), and what to do if I see a skunk (ditto), and what to do if one of the mountain lions strays on to the monastery (clap hands and sing a psalm while maintaining eye contact at all times). I wonder if there is anything in the Rule of Benedict about dealing with mountain lions.

Also he tells me: at the right time of the year you can sit in this cell and watch a hundred whales go by. I try to keep my composure, but in my heart I bless the Lord.

The cells are similar in design to the ancient monastic cells that have been excavated in the Nitrian desert. A main sitting room branching off into a small bedroom, chapel, bathroom, and kitchen, all opening on to an enclosed garden. The desert fathers each had a well in the garden too, though many of them also had slaves to draw the water. Taps with running water are one of those small but significant improvements to the monastic life. It is not true that the earliest is always the best.

Soon after arriving I hurry to the chapel for evening prayer. The first words that we sing are one of my favourite verses from the Psalms: I love the Lord, for he heard my cry.

I have not spoken today but I have not been silent either. All day long the voices in my mind chatter away like school children on their lunch break.

Coming out from morning prayer I stood outside the chapel and looked over the sea and saw a whale spouting, then another. For a second I forgot to breathe, as one always does when one sees whales. Then with all haste I got in the car and drove down the mountain to get a closer look. On the winding road down from the monastery I saw them spout again. But when I had got to the bottom and stood on the cliff above the sea, I found that the whales were out of sight. I had failed to reckon on the fact that you can see so much further from higher up. There are times when the closer you get to a thing, the more it recedes from view.

At mass each day the brothers form a circle around the altar and all the guests and visitors make a wider circle. When the presider raises his hands for the epiclesis, all the monks who are priests also raise their hands towards the altar. I like the theology behind this gesture, even if it feels a bit hocus pocus to see so many priests arranged in a circle with their hands stretched out towards the centre. I suppose you have to do this kind of thing in California. Anyway it’s reassuring to know that the mass would still be completed even if a presiding brother were to keel over and die on the spot.

After evening prayer the mountain is wrapped in darkness. I have been instructed to use the torch provided in my cell because it will reduce the risk of walking straight off the edge of a cliff and never being seen again. But I prefer to shuffle cautiously in the dark because the stars, shy nocturnal creatures that they are, come closer when there is no other light. On a high cliff I find a bench and lie down and watch the stars, great thickets of them burning out of the silent past. I remember how I always feared the dark when I was a child, ever since we lived in that place with the outdoor toilet (haunted by Australian spiders) that could only be approached by following a winding path under the menacing trees while nightmares rustled in the dead leaves on every side. Even as a teenager I was forever glancing behind me when I was alone and in darkness. And I remember how nineteen years ago, the night you came down and took possession of me, the first thing that happened was I stopped being afraid. From that night to this I have always found great consolation in darkness. I lie here on the bench beneath the moving stars and think: this is your gift to me, this darkness.

On my morning bike ride I saw a snake on the road. It was a baby, less than a foot long, black with an orange belly and a single orange ring around its neck, and it was trying to cross the road. I stopped a while to monitor its progress and, if necessary, to help it get safely across. Judging from its rather phlegmatic style of slithering, I am not sure it was fully apprised of the precariousness of the situation. But when I gave it an encouraging nudge it only rose its little head as if to strike, so I rode off and resolved to let nature take its course. Coming back later I saw the little thing broken on the road. A car had got him. I hoped his mother would never find out. Sometimes it is better not to know. Let her go on supposing that he has hitched a ride to San Francisco and that he is fulfilling all his dreams in the city. Let her go on hoping. There are people who say that knowing is always best, but if this vale of tears has taught me anything it’s that sometimes a little ignorance can go a long way.

My fifth Thanksgiving dinner in America. Twice with families, once with students, once with the homeless, and now with monks. Evaluation: families have the best cooking, students have the best music, the homeless have the best conversation, and the monks have the best wine.

Each night after evening prayer we sit on mats around the altar. One of the brothers carries consecrated bread and sets it on the altar. Three candles are burning. Then the lights go down and we sit for half an hour in silence. Some of the monks and visitors adopt the lotus position. Last night there was a visitor who filled our silence with the sounds of stifled weeping. When it is over the lights come on and everybody goes away. The icon of the Trinity is asking me a question as I touch the font and go out into the dark.

Sometimes I can hardly tell if I am myself or someone else. Sometimes everything in my life reminds me of you. My eyes look out on the sky and the sea but it all reminds me of you who looked out on this world with human eyes (my eyes) and loved it, every last infuriating bit of it. In your eyes, God looked at the world from the inside and saw that it was good. Not that it was a pretty sight. You saw Satan too. He fell like lightning under your gaze. St Thomas said there are five ways to prove the existence of God. I don’t know anything about that, but when I see my own five fingers they remind me of your hands. My feet, tired from walking, remind me of all the roads you travelled on feet like mine. You have cut your paths in me. Everything in me leads back to you. If I desire anything at all, my longing becomes a path to you: for all desire bends invisibly to you and all love whispers your name. If I were to lose you, my loss would become your way to me: for you take special pleasure in finding whatever is lost. If I were to flee from you, my flight would lead me to you: for you are the door that I would finally reach in search of refuge. If I were to hate and reject you, even my hate would lead me to you in the end, and I would find there that the rejected stone had become the cornerstone of my life. Everything in my life is pointing the way to you if only I have eyes to see. My whole being is speaking your name if only I have ears to hear it. I am the place from which you call to me. I am a constant, painful reminder to myself of the great Love that has touched with human hands, seen with human eyes, and heard with human ears. Love calls to me not only from beyond my life but also from within it. You have got under my skin. That’s my problem and my salvation. There is no escaping a human God.

The Camaldolese brothers have a special love for the Little Rule of St Romuald. It is framed on the wall of my cell. “Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it.”

A saying of St Antony: “Life and death depend on our neighbour. For if we win over our brother, we win over God.”

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