A Retreat Among the Monks at Big Sur
Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains of central California fall sharply down to the Pacific Ocean, is a terrible beauty. This remote and rugged land spans an undefined area of the coast between Carmel, on the Monterey Peninsula, and San Simeon in San Luis Obispo county.
Weekend crowds from San Francisco Bay to the north and from Los Angeles far to the south can turn the two-lane coastal road into a parking lot, especially in summer. In recent years fires, floods and mudslides have ravaged the Central Coast of California, closing parts of Highway 1 on several occasions. In 2017, the road was closed near both ends of Big Sur, effectively cutting the area off for months from the north, and for well over a year from the south.
As soon as I heard that the road north was re-opening in July 2018, I decided to take the familiar drive from my home in Santa Barbara before the rest of the world heard that Big Sur was accessible again. Turns out the rest of the world already knew and apparently had the same plan. As I approached Big Sur, I drove into a nightmare of traffic congestion, and knew that staying on Highway 1 would not be the peaceful interlude I wanted it to be.
The silence here is not an absence of noise so much as a presence, as sharp and distinctive as a wall of transparent glass.
Fortunately, I had a secret plan. Near the village of Lucia, so tiny that I’m not sure I can call it a village, is a curving dirt road with multiple switch-backs up a steep hill to New Camaldoli Hermitage. Near the top of the road, I pulled into a turn out and looked down past Highway 1 with its ribbon of cars no bigger than insects. I let the view to the fog-shrouded scene below wash over me and began to feel some peace above the fray.
None of the travel-induced chaos of Big Sur makes it up the mountain to New Camaldoli. A bookstore at the entrance to the hermitage offers an oasis of serenity to those of us who’ve arrived without a retreat reservation. While the vow of silence doesn’t hold in the bookstore, peace still reigns there. As I entered, the monk staffing the store was chatting with a woman holding a copy of Jung’s Collected Works. Gregorian chant played softly in the background.
Most of the bookstore’s titles relate to Catholicism/Christianity, or about Eastern religions, or about spirituality in general. Several titles might be considered psycho-spiritual or even ‘new age’. It wasn’t the season for the monks’ popular fruit cake, or date and nut bread, so I bought some Hermitage Honey (Pure. Raw. Taste the fields of Big Sur).
The Benedictine monks of New Camaldoli welcome visitors for silent retreats in simple one-room cabins that sit just above the fog line, pushing in from the Pacific Ocean below. The nine cabins of the main retreat area, each with a twin-size bed and half-bath, share two showers and a small kitchen, where vegetarian food is brought on warming trays three times a day.
Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
New Camaldoli Hermitage is a working monastery, with accommodations and an environment geared toward spiritual retreats. It is not for everyone, nor should it be. Its remoteness and silence make it what it is. I heard about a couple who drove up one afternoon for a stay at the hermitage. They drove off the same evening, unable to live without the distractions of TV, radio, or cellphone service.
National Geographic magazine offered travel writer and sometime Santa Barbara resident Pico Iyer a chance to go anywhere he wanted. He chose New Camaldoli, a place he’s visited even more often than I have. Of the hermitage Iyer says: “The silence here is not an absence of noise so much as a presence, as sharp and distinctive as a wall of transparent glass.”
Over the years, I have often seen deer and coyotes wandering the grounds, as unafraid of me as any animals I would later see in the Galapagos Islands. I’ve competed with a family of foxes in the fenced yard of my cabin for ripe figs that fell from a tree rooted in the next yard, just feet from the edge of the cliff.
Raised Catholic, I am so far beyond ‘lapsed’ that there is no going back. Still, I retain a love for the Church’s Latin music, and during my stays I religiously go to hear the monks singing morning Lauds and evening Vespers. Sitting on a zabuton, I participate in silent Zen meditation in the chapel immediately after Vespers.
If you go to New Camaldoli you are invited to follow the Rule of St. Romuald (953–1027), which begins: Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.