Thoughts from a Catholic Hermitage
Pico Iyer, author of Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign, on the time he spends at a Catholic hermitage, a place by the sea where creation unites with the light inside.
This is the place where plans and words burn up, I say defiantly, triumphantly. Names fall away, and with them all the divisions that names enforce. I look out on an ocean that’s become a blue plate extending below me, the sky a great bowl of blue above, birds calling from the trees, rabbits in the undergrowth—and realize that it doesn’t matter who or where you are: this is who you are when the who (and the are) falls away.
So much of our time—my time, at least—is spent in drawing fine analytical distinctions: this and that, East and West, male and female, head and heart. Sometimes I can even convince myself they have something to do with spirit: breathing in and breathing out, taking in and giving back. I lull myself with the ebb and flow of the motion, and hear in it systole and diastole. But from where I sit today, in a patch of light, the ocean 1,300 feet below, spread out like a mat that reaches all the way to Asia, it isn’t the movement that impresses me: it’s the stillness that lies behind it.
No terms in this place, and no sign of anything man-made. Receding hills to the south, mist wreathing in and out of them. The ocean below. Brush that has been cleared to protect the place from fire. Up above, if I look towards the blue, blue sky, cloudless in early spring, a cross, as it happens, though it could be something else.
The problems of conscience, of thought, the movement of awareness, and cutting through illusion and deceit—these are the fabric of a magazine such as this one. It is a handbook for practitioners, anxious to find clarity and direction in the world. The pieces I write for it tend to go to the crux of some paradox that confounds me—my bad habits, my lazy reflexes, the way that the cruel hides inside the kind.
I tell myself—and feel it, at a level deeper than the words—that Buddhism, so vibrant in Japan, has taught me about impermanence and loss, helped me to see the blaze of autumn leaves in a frame of darkness, helped me to savor every moment because of a keen awareness of how fast the moment leaves. It has taught me to cut through layer after layer of what I call the self, the world, and see behind it nothingness, the ultimate back stage.
I tell myself that being in this Catholic space on and off over thirteen years has revealed to me the light that hides within that darkness, has taught me about radiance, affirmation, grace. I come here in the spring, and when I look out on Creation—the word that I would otherwise never use for simple ocean, radiant sky—the soul feels like singing. The two turn upon one another as the illuminated frame for chaos and the darker frame for beauty. They teach respectively the lessons of autumn and spring.
But autumn and spring are part of the same round, and it is a round that takes them in and makes the terms quite meaningless. One does not think to call oneself a Buddhist or a Catholic when one is in love; one does not think to call oneself anything. What remains when the last illusion or diversion is cut away is this: blue sky, blue ocean, the wheeling sun. And this, too: the moon above the hills, translucent, the planes and their beeping lights among the stars.
I come to a Catholic monastery to cut through whatever notions I have of Catholicism, the Church, its practice and misdeeds in the world. I come here to cut through whatever I might associate with Buddhism, too, its oppositions and convergences. I come to step into whatever stands behind the person who is saying all that and the one who imagines himself a being in the world.
Does it help me with my practice in “real life”? Does it give me a clearer sense of which is the right path to take? Does it help me sort out this good from that rival good? It does, but only in the way a slant of light does, and questions themselves fall away. It could be snowing, it could be bright tomorrow; the sea, the sky, the deer emerging from the tall grass in the dusk, will still be here.