A few nights ago there was a documentary on Sister Wendy Beckett known to TV audiences as the lisping nun who has done several commentary series on great art. Sister Wendy lives as a contemplative nun, a hermit, in a small prefabricated house, much like a travel trailer or RV, on the grounds of a Carmelite Abbey. She was a bit perturbed that so much of the filming time was focused on her life, when what she really wanted to talk about were paintings of Christ and what they meant to her personally. In her 80s she is bent, fragile, and as she said, hoping it won't be long before I sleep, nodding at the Abbey's shaded and green cemetery as they passed it, with the other nuns. A plain, quiet woman, deeply rooted in her faith.
Counterpoint Press has just re-issued Road to Heaven, Bill Porter’s story of his search for Taoist and Buddhist hermits in China’s Chungnan mountains in 1989. In 1989, Porter, a scholar of Chinese religion and philosophy, wondered if the Buddhist hermit tradition still existed in China after years of persecution under Mao's Cultural Revolution.
But deep in the Chungnan mountains — the historical refuge of hermits — Porter discovered dozens of monks and nuns leading solitary lives in quiet contemplation of their faith. He found enough to fill a book with brief, lucid interviews and photographs. When he arrives at their doorsteps, they are generous and polite, but unconcerned with politics and worldly issues. Like many Westerners Porter looks for signs of "enlightenment" or some special dispensation of holiness but he finds plain people who simply have learned to be quiet.
Why come to the mountains?
It is a good place to practice.
Did there used to be more hermits?
There used to be more, and now there are less.
Is it a good place because it is quiet?
If people are quiet, they can be quiet anywhere.
Isn’t it hard?
After awhile, it’s all the same.
Isn’t it cold in the winter?
Winters are a good time to practice.
How do you practice?
I just pass the time.
Do you practice very much?
Practice is the only thing that matters. Have some tea.
So what am I to take from this?
That I have a long way to go to learn to be quiet anywhere.