I just spent a week at my dad's farm in the hills outside San Miguel, one of the original missions founded by Franciscan friar Junipero Serra. My brother, The Reverend, and his family, who live in the small house tucked up in the corner of the orchard, were away (camping in the redwoods with Crash and Barnacle Boy), so it was just my dad, his wife and me. It's the quietest place I've been in ages, even quieter than the old Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, or the retreat house at Gloucester where I made the Exercises.
My recent reading of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence left me envious of her hermitage in the Scottish highlands, and this trip only exacerbated my jealousy. No traffic noises drifted over the fields. The nearest highway is 8 miles away, the roads are dirt, gravel or chip sealed, limiting speed. No trains whistles shriek. I can hear the horse in the pasture down the road nicker, and the splash the resident swallows make when they hit the pool. The wind rustles in the dry grass, and makes the green olives clack like castanets.
In Pursuit of Silence, another summer read, George Prochnik writes about the thick silence of a Trappist chapel, dug deep into the earth, a silence that can disturb as easily as it can ease. Alone in the house one morning, I walked into the brick lined food cellar, earth surrounding it on fives sides and experienced that same sort of silence. Thick as a good hot chocolate, cool and a bit damp, absorbing even the sound of my breathing. This silence rings.
I went with Mike to Mission San Antonio this week, the only one of the missions still in a remote setting. It's a 30 mile drive out from highway 101 or a hair-raising drive of similar length from the coast highway, winding along the San Antonio river bed, and through the foothills of the Santa Lucia range. on the way back, with Mike at the wheel, I eyed these rippled golden — and empty — hills with an eye to a hermitage of my own.
My dream site would be tucked into the fold of a hill, with a view of mountains and ocean. Olive trees and vineyards rolls away from my small adobe house with the red tile roof. The bed is tucked into a loft, there is a simple kitchen, a comfortable chair and a fireplace A tiny chapel with warm frescoes, candles burning in front of a wood statue, and one small but exquisite stained glass rose window forms one side of a courtyard, with a fountain. A pool (a safety feature in these dry hills, a reservoir of water to fight a fire!) edged by fruit trees forms the other side, and a low wall keeps the goats and sheep out. There is a cool storage cellar under my croft. And there's wi-fi. But no TV. California dreaming....of an entirely different sort than the Mommas and Poppas envisioned.
Reality check: I rather think my dream of a hermitage would need a practice green out back for Math Man, and easy access to good golfing. And frankly I suspect my E of a spouse would soon find such a place to be the closest thing to be had on earth to purgatory.