The New Camaldoli hermitage perches atop a mountain just south of Big Sur. The dozen or so Benedictine monastics who call the hermitage home earn a portion of their living from fruit and date nut cakes and a small bookstore and gift shop. But their primary source of income is a retreat house and guest hermitages dotting a precipitous, dubious hillside held in place by the will of eucalyptus, oak and pampas grass roots.
Accommodations include all meals for a suggested $100 a night, but guests are welcomed even if they can pay nothing at all. The hermitage has a four and a half star rating on Yelp, though the number of reviews is small and reviewers are quick to point out that the experience is not for everyone. One person praises it as the closest to a hostel one is likely to find in pricey Big Sur but complains that food preparation is “uneven.” Most everyone else comes for the spiritual atmosphere and is not particularly concerned about the quality of dinner.
I’ve come to write. All I want from a meal is that it be hot and I neither have to cook it myself nor speak to anyone to obtain it.
* * *
Check-in is at the bookstore, whose state of disrepair is artfully hidden by a tumble of climbing jasmine. The monk behind the counter is a little rotund, tonsured and wears a white robe with Birkenstocks peeking out from its hem. “Ah, you’re in Kairos!” he exclaims. “We’ve just finished rebuilding it. You’ll be its first guest.” I will speak to precisely three monks over the course of my week stay. Each one will make note of this fact. To each I will say that I hope I leave behind an atmosphere worthy of the place, fairly certain my choice of phrasing, from which words like “blessing” are conspicuously absent, telegraphs that I am not of their faith. They don’t seem to mind.
The brother at the store takes me on a tour of the monastery and invites me to Vespers. When we part he assures me that the grounds are safe at any time of the day or night. I marvel at his faith in his fellow man, or the Lord, or both. I also wonder if the cougars got the memo. But his gaze is so earnest and his tone so sincere that I feel churlish conjuring up robbers or psychopaths or mountain lions prowling the hillside.
The road up to the monastery has been recently paved. The steep, rutted track down to the guest hermitages is not paved at all and though I’m not generally one for supplicatory prayer I hope to God I can get the low-slung RX-8 out of here come Friday morning.
Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!
* * *
Kairos is simple and charming, with a desk, a small kitchen, and understated nods to the spiritual foundations of the place in the crucifix over the bed and a small, bright picture of the Immaculate Heart behind the rocking chair. It smells a little of paint but more powerfully and delightfully of newly sawn redwood. I unpack, grab my little metal pail and head up to the retreat kitchen. The cottage door has a lock but I have no key; I eye my netbook worriedly but leave it sitting on the desk rather than securing it in my car. It is still there when I return. I put the pail – its compartments now filled with minestrone and salad – in the refrigerator, heat water for tea in the electric kettle and get to work, writing steadily until the bell rings for Vespers at five minutes to six. On a whim I decide to attend the service; it seems a shame to spend a week here and experience nothing of the community.
Lighting in the vestibule is subdued and the holy water font, a polished black stone column hollowed out on top to form a shallow basin, rises from the floor like a geological formation. On the wall to the right hang two slotted wooden boxes. Neatly printed placards above them read, For the hermitage and For the poor. Two women whisper beneath another placard: Silence please.
In the sanctuary proper thirteen monks sit on facing rows of simple pine chairs, six on one side and seven on the other. Widely spaced on equally simple pine benches arrayed behind the monks are just under a dozen lay individuals. The severe stone altar is located in a separate rotunda, only partially visible from where I sit. The rotunda’s sole illumination is a single candle, lit by one of the brothers before he takes his seat.
Everyone sits with bowed head except for me and a tall, thin man of the indeterminate age between thirty-five and fifty. His head is shaved and he wears natural linen pants and shirt, has a cream woolen shawl wrapped about his shoulders and a bright purple stretchy sling crossing from shoulder to waist. He manages to carry off the look with bohemian aplomb. He sits quiet and upright, gazing at a point in space, and I find myself convinced that he is a Buddhist, though I won’t have the opportunity – Silence Please – to verify my hypothesis.
In contrast to his stillness I feel like a chipmunk poking a nervous head out of its burrow to assess its surroundings, and I make a futile effort to keep still and cease my endless cataloging. Marble tile floors, burgundy speckled with black. The rotunda warmed by narrow wood planks radiating out from its domed ceiling. A simple metal cross – not a crucifix – suspended over the altar by thin wires that make it appear to float in midair. Cinderblock walls of the wilting daffodil hue common in the seventies; the interior must have been remodeled at some later –
A brother begins to sing, a crystalline tenor voice. In the wake of Vatican II many ill-considered efforts to popularize the liturgy by adding guitars and folk stylings were attempted and discarded. The Benedictines instead took their beautiful but complex Gregorian chant and simplified it while retaining its essential character. I find my place in the Vespers book and softly sing the response along with the other monks and retreatants; buoyed by the chant the desire to analyze the sanctuary’s construction leaves me. I find a meditative space that I haven’t touched for years and float within it.
* * *
About halfway through Vespers a middle-aged couple strolls in. The man has the delighted expression of someone observing a pack of extraordinarily clever meerkats and the woman, dressed in a hot pink and green t-shirt winking with rhinestones and sequins, stares sullenly around the room before putting on a pair of oversized dark glasses. They sit down, then depart after only a few minutes, whispering and giggling as they go. I never see them again, and I wonder if they really left Highway 1 and drove two miles up a winding, one-lane road just to gawk at monks.
Perhaps they were looking for fruit cake.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one Communion in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.
* * *
I am awake but still in bed when the 5:15 a.m. bell for Vigils rings, up but not dressed at the 7:00 a.m. call for Lauds. At this altitude even the ocean respects the monks’ request for silence, and though the sea still drowses beneath its blanket of fog the sun is shining on Kairos and the day promises to be pleasant.
After a morning’s writing I make my way to the sanctuary for the Eucharist service at 11:30. It is All Saints Day and the focus of the service is on the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The monks take it in turns to prepare daily meals and sermons, and the brother speaking today is modest and gently funny. He calls saints “God’s handkerchiefs,” suggests that the Beatitudes are not laws but road signs for a happy life, speaks of holiness not as grand gestures but as doing small things with love. His message is earnest and simple. I wonder if, after all these years, I could believe it again. If my heart could be changed.
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
* * *
On my way to the retreat kitchen to pick up the evening meal I hear a woman’s voice, loud and a little petulant. “But my heart is so changed by this experience, I just want to share it with everyone!”
Cresting the hill I see the tenor from Vespers sitting with a retreatant at a small table beneath the jasmine that frames the bookstore. He begins explaining in a soft, patient voice how glad he is for her, how glad all the brothers are, but that retreat means different things to different people and each must be permitted the solitude and the silence to experience it according to his or her own desire and need. She is still arguing with him when I return with my full metal pail. I hear her voice far longer than his as I trudge back down the hill.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
* * *
On the desk in Kairos lies a pamphlet entitled “Monastic Community and Solitude.” A gentle paean to the life of prayer and silent communion that is the closest to marketing material the hermitage comes, it contains this sentence:
To seek God is to search for the affable wisdom which fulfills.
The phrase reminds me of endless arguments in college with an earnest young man named Randy. A fierce proponent of liberation theology, the intensity of his commitment to the poverty stricken and politically downtrodden of Central America was exceeded only by the intensity of his desire to see every monastery reduced to planks and reborn as housing for the poor, and every monk set to performing “useful labor.” The monastic life, he insisted, was not merely unproductive but perverse and immoral. Prayer without engagement meant nothing, meant less than nothing.
I was between religious convictions and had no particular dog in the fight, but my instinct said that the world would be poorer for the absence of men and women who believed in the virtue of a quiet life lived well. Had I been acquainted with Ronald Dworkin’s finely drawn distinction between the performance and the product-based life I might have been able to mount a more concrete defense, but Randy burned with the fiery conviction of righteous youth and I doubt if I could have said anything to sway him.
Not even, most likely, had I brandished the paragraph in “Monastic Community and Solitude” describing the kind of men who often respond to the Camaldolese calling: psychologists, social workers, parish priests who have already offered a lifetime of service to others and now minister in quieter ways: counseling spiritual seekers, tending gardens, preparing retreatant meals.
On my first afternoon at the hermitage the monk from the bookstore says that they are welcoming a new postulant, a retired social worker from England. “The things he’s seen,” his face grows momentarily mournful. “We’re glad to welcome him into our midst.” Then he brightens again. “And oh! How we all love it when he sings, with his fine British accent!”
When the bell rings for Vespers I realize that my little cottage is surrounded by a dozen deer, feeding before night falls. For a moment I contemplate skipping the service so I don’t frighten them away, then decide that they’ll likely come back after I’m gone. In fact only a few of them even bother to look up from their leaves and branches as I pass by, and a buck boldly spreads his legs to urinate, eyeing me with no more than idle curiosity. The grounds, after all, are perfectly safe any time of the day or night.
Does the hermitage justify its existence if it does no more than provide a haven from hunters for deer and quail, a sanctuary for a few tired men to rest in their God’s affable wisdom? I think perhaps it does.
* * *
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning.
The sky still glitters with densely packed stars when the bell rings for Vigils. It is far more sparsely attended than other services: we each take a bench to ourselves and there are still four benches left over. A plain-faced, pear-shaped woman with an indifferent haircut, who one might expect to keep house for a parish priest. A middle-aged man of average height, average appearance, average dress but with an earnest countenance. The rigidly upright bohemian Buddhist. Me in my jeans and L.L. Bean flannel with wet hair pulled back into a pony tail. Missing are the lean, athletic women who participate in services with uptilted faces, closed eyes and raised hands and the tall bronzed men in pinstriped Oxford shirts who climb into their Porsches at lunchtime and leave the mountain.
The rotunda is dark as a tomb, no candles lit at the altar. Eleven monks sit in their chairs, empty spaces left for the absent brothers who are tending to early morning chores or are, perhaps, ill – a single brother’s coughing and sniffling has spread to half a dozen over the past two days. After the first psalm is sung, they close their ranks with a soft rustling of robes.
Vigils is the most mechanically difficult service of the day, and my (mildly prideful) meditative poise collapses in the confusion. Verses in the psalmody are marked with two sets of numbers, the weekly Xeroxed order of services offers no clarification, and the fact that I am not the only person flipping pages back and forth is small consolation. A small, elderly monk rises from his chair, bows to the altar, crosses through the vestibule, bows again and slips to my side, where he whispers an explanation and then passes on to the next discomposed retreatant.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with the book of Psalms. The laments in particular, with their structure of suffering, cursing, calling for divine assistance to vanquish one’s enemies followed by celebration when those enemies lie crushed at one’s feet, reacts with my modern sensibilities in an unsalutary way. Studying the order of service more carefully I see that part of its complexity derives from the silent passing over of the curses and the most bloodthirsty of the thanksgivings.
Along with the brothers and the other retreatants I sing and bow and listen to the scripture readings for All Souls Day. But half my mind is elsewhere. What intellectual ocular migraine permits the monks to overlook the primitive savagery staring up at them daily from the printed page and uncritically accept the rest? Perhaps their faith is strong enough to hold these oppositions in tension. Mine never was.
My heart suddenly feels substantially less inclined to change. I have wrestled with this angel before, and let it go without asking for blessing.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
* * *
The orders of St. Benedict are nothing if not adaptive. The Trappist Thomas Merton, after all, engaged in a long and fruitful dialog with the Buddhist intellectual D.T. Suzuki. And here at New Camaldoli, where the sanctuary is open day and night for prayer and meditation, Zen zafu are tucked beneath the benches lining the rotunda wall, and yoga mats are stacked behind the altar. A single small, traditional kneeling bench is hidden away out of sight in a small, separate room, like a shameful secret everyone would just as soon forget. I wonder if someday, when the generations who remember praying on those kneeboards are in their graves, the bench will quietly disappear.
When I check out at the end of the week the monk at the bookstore tells me that if I return – and they hope I will – I should be able to schedule my retreat using their new online reservation system. I feel a twinge of sadness at the ever encroaching concessions to modernity but am also a little glad – they are terrible about answering their phones.
Will I return? Perhaps. I cannot share their faith. But I still admire their affable wisdom.
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and their tongue speaks what is right. The law of their God is in their heart, and their footsteps shall not falter.