Choosing Gratitude

One of my many talents is the ability to be dissatisfied in the midst of astonishing abundance. Case in point: last weekend’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

In years past, you called the hermitage for a reservation, and they assigned you a room. Now, with their new online reservation system, you choose your own room. That’s where the trouble began.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a tree partially blocking my view of the ocean. I started to picture how superior the views farther down the line must be and to wish I had chosen differently.

Allow me to clarify exactly how ridiculous this reaction was. The hermitage overlooks the Big Sur coastline, some of the most dramatic in the world. Every room opens onto a vista—in reality, you could see a tree when you looked at the ocean; it would have taken a forest to block the view.

Luckily, I heard myself being ridiculous and did not spend the weekend resenting that beautiful place. I did, however, begin to understand why monastics willingly give up many of their choices. When the rooms were assigned, I had never compared or judged them but had considered each one a great gift.

We often get caught up in evaluating our choices to ensure that we have the best rather than realizing that what we have is incredible. In another room, I wouldn’t have seen the quail rustling the rosemary bushes in the evening or the blazing red flowers of the New Zealand tea tree. I wouldn’t have heard the drone of bees—the loudest I can remember—coming from the giant pollen gathering festival taking place nearby.

I’m not suggesting we forfeit our choices. There are too many places in the world where people literally have no choice, and the resulting suffering can be immense.

I’m simply proposing that whichever road we choose, we remember it is strewn with gifts that are not better or worse, only different.

Spectacular Fail

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to swear at the cat and the computer the day after returning from a retreat, whether or not they both deserve it. Luckily I discovered a mantra over the weekend that accounts for such moments: “spectacular fail.”

I spent the last three days at a Camaldolese hermitage on the Big Sur coast. At the hermitage you get your own room with a small garden overlooking the ocean. They feed you well—the best spanakopita I’ve ever had—and all you have to do is sit and walk and be quiet and go to services if you want to. It is fabulous.

Now, of course, in the Great Holiness Competition, one must strive to use every moment at a place such as this to its maximum holiness potential. I believe there’s an equation that will calculate that potential for you. Unfortunately, during the entire drive up, my brain insisted on thinking about work, which as we all know has an enlightenment quotient of zero. (All of us except the monks. It is actually in the monk directions—otherwise known as the Rule of St. Benedict—that working will help them get to know God.)

After arriving I looked out my window at the hills dropping into the ocean, one of the most dramatic scenes nature offers, and commenced worrying about my mental obsession with my job. It is particularly useful to worry about obsessing. At this moment, “spectacular fail” came to me. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I did that? Rock bottom would be spending three days surrounded by peace, eating good food, and listening to Gregorian chant. That’s it. That’s as bad as it could possibly get.

Then I went to vespers, or evening prayer. There are a lot of things to do wrong at monastery services. If you’re a non-Catholic and have found all the kneeling, sitting, and standing at a Catholic mass clearly designed to make you feel more in touch with your inner idiot than with God, multiply that by at least a power of ten. I have been to New Camaldoli four or five times now, and I still have visions of singing the wrong psalm, forgetting to bow, or in some other stupendous way making it clear to the monks that they should put an asterisk next to my name to remind them to say, “Sorry, we’re full.” next time I call for a reservation.

When these thoughts came rolling in, I stopped and said to myself, “spectacular fail.” After giving myself permission to mess up in a big way, I realized the monks might have witnessed a mistake or two in their time.

My mind did quiet down. The peace, silence, and beauty of the hermitage seeped in. I didn’t do anything irretrievably stupid, or if I did, the monks were much too kind to notice. And next time the likelihood of my doing something world-ending feels overwhelming, I have this handy phrase to help me out.