The Long Road to New Camaldoli
I try to spend some time on retreat at New Camaldoli every year.
The last day of August is the feast day of Saint Aidan. Aidan was a Celtic missionary monk who journeyed from the island monastery of Iona to establish the island monastery of Lindisfarne. His day is the day I became a lay oblate at New Camaldoli, a Benedictine community near Big Sur, California.
It takes me several hours to drive from where I live to New Camaldoli.
I begin on the freeways of Southern California. Our freeways often remind us to slow down, take time, and be courteous to others.
Part of my route follows the California coast, which can be shrouded in fog. I often put my window down as I drive along the coast and breathe the ocean air.
Other parts of my journey are through California farmland and rocky hills. Each mile is filled with its own distractions.
This year the road to New Camaldoli has lasted twice as long. I planned to visit last summer, but was unexpectedly not able to go. The obstacle was not the pandemic or the quarantine.
Last August, a few days before I would have left, New Camaldoli was surrounded by brushfires. The buildings at the hermitage were not damaged. Most of the monks were evacuated and part of the grounds were a staging area for CalFire and the Army fighting to hold back the fires.
There was another summer a few years ago when I was not able to visit the hermitage. Storms during the preceding winter had washed out Highway 1 both north and south of Big Sur. That year I spent time at another monastery.
Eventually I arrive at the driveway and begin the final two miles up to the hermitage.
My Road to New Camaldoli
The first time I drove to New Camaldoli I got lost.
The road which led me to the hermitage was part of a wider highway which showed me contemplative life. A friend who saw how drawn I was to contemplative practices suggested I might appreciate Benedictine spirituality. I began reading and investigating Benedictine history and theology. There was a monastery I visited about which I had many questions. I enjoyed my retreats there, but it did not feel like the fit for me.
My friend asked me if I had heard of New Camaldoli. She encouraged me to check out the community. “They might be your kind of guys,” she told me. I began exploring a connection to the community.
Father Robert Hale welcomed my questions. We seemed to share a sense of humor and a sense of perspective. He stood with me on that Saint Aidan’s Day when I was received as an oblate. Father Robert was my first example of what living monastic life was like.
Before I was received, I spent a year becoming accustomed to the practices of New Camaldoli. I read books and developed new contemplative practices. Each time I prayed morning and evening prayer at the same time as the hermitage, I felt the community drawing me.
The hermitage has become, for me, an overarching structure which supports contemplative practices. My relationship to the community has changed how I understand spiritual life, my practices, all of my life.
The road to New Camaldoli is a long one and continues for me. Each time I drive north to the hermitage becomes more of a trip home for me.
It was difficult when I was not able to be at the hermitage last summer, and I am eager to renew my acquaintance next week.
The Challenges of the Road to New Camaldoli
Parts of my road to New Camaldoli each year can be challenging. It is not all ocean breezes and fields.
In San Luis Obispo the highway I have followed from Southern California merges with Highway 1. Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway is a beautiful driving experience. I drive north past Hearst Castle and the town of Cambria.
North of Cambria, Highway 1 earns its reputation. It climbs the hills along the coast in a series of tight turns and stunning overlooks of the ocean. The highway’s two lanes attract two kinds of drivers; those who want to see the beautiful views and vistas, and those who want to drive fast.
My approach to New Camaldoli is filled with beauty and amazing things to see. At the same time, when I get closer to the hermitage I am eager to arrive.
It can be difficult to share the road with both kinds of drivers and, at the same time, take in the beauty.
The area around the hermitage, including Highway 1, was created to attract people’s attention. It is a beautiful place. Some of us might need to pull over and spend some time seeing it.
Arriving at New Camaldoli
When I wind my way back and forth up the hill to New Camaldoli, I know where I am going. After I check in at the bookstore, I head for one of the trailers located on the property.
People who visit on a retreat choose between one of the rooms in the guest house or staying in a trailer.
I have stayed in the guest house and more than one trailer, but one has become home for me.
The hermitage is a place of reflection, rest, peace, and stillness for me. Away from cellphones and the Internet, I spend my days rocking in a chair and looking out over the ocean.
The trees, the birds, and the deer are my companions. Together we sit and rock, letting the distractions of the world roll off our backs.
My long, slow, restorative days are punctuated by the services of the daily office with the community.
At night there are more stars in the sky than I have ever seen in Southern California.
Where is New Camaldoli for you? How long have you been on the road?
How will you recognize your New Camaldoli when you find it?
[Image by KlausNahr]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.