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Sacred Silence in Big Sur

At the New Camaldoli Hermitage, visitors of all faiths share with monks a sanctuary where time slows and solitude has a restorative power.

April 15, 2001|KATHERINE KAM | Katherine Kam is a freelance writer based in Alameda, Calif

BIG SUR — In a cloister overlooking the coastline, the Benedictine monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage spend their days in silence and contemplation, in the tradition of their 11th century brethren in the Tuscan Apennines. And as Benedictines have done throughout the ages, these monks extend hospitality to sojourners seeking a quiet sanctuary.

When I heard about this promise of silence, I was intrigued: a chance to escape the urban cacophony of talk radio, roaring airplanes, car alarms, leaf blowers and cell phones. And as a busy working mother, I couldn't resist the notion of repairing to a quiet place to read, reflect and daydream.

The monks are Roman Catholic, but New Camaldoli is a spiritual retreat in the broadest sense. People from all faiths and walks of life are welcome to spend time doing whatever inspires them-praying, meditating, reading, walking outdoors or simply sorting out their thoughts in the beauty of Big Sur, about 300 miles north of Los Angeles.

Across the nation, monastic retreats have surged in popularity, thanks in part to poet Kathleen Norris' bestseller, "The Cloister Walk" (Riverhead, 1996), about her rejuvenation within a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. The monk who took my reservation at New Camaldoli (pronounced ca-MALL-doe-LEE) mentioned that weekends are booked six months solid. Why so popular? "Word is getting out," he said. "If you want solitude, we can make it available."

The brothers don't take a vow of silence, as some orders do; they are silent because they believe it fosters a contemplative atmosphere. So guests are asked to leave pets, musical instruments and radios at home. My husband, John, and I were happy to oblige. Before we hit the road on the appointed Saturday in January, we swung by the grandparents' place to drop off two boisterous children and one barking dog. Fittingly, the only approach to the monastery is a slow one along the serpentine, two-lane California Highway 1, carved into the cliffs of the rugged Central Coast. Again and again as we drove, the allure of the Pacific prompted us to pull over at vista points that dotted the coastline.

South of Big Sur in the town of Lucia, we turned off the highway and climbed a narrow, winding road two miles into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Finally, on an isolated clearing more than 1,000 feet above the sea, we found a cluster of unassuming cinder-block buildings cradled in a landscape of mesmerizing beauty: lofty green hills studded with oak and madrono, a deep valley and the vast ocean.

Twenty-two monks live at New Camaldoli. While their lives are centered on prayer and contemplation, they also work around the monastery cleaning, baking, writing or staffing the small bookstore. When not working, they retire to their solitary rooms, which surround the chapel.

We checked in at the bookstore, one of the few places where guests may talk, chatted with a couple of monks and browsed the books and CDs, which included Gregorian chants and Buddhist flute music from Nepal. The shelves were also stocked with products made at other monasteries-coffee, chocolate fudge, spice packets, creamed honey. We bought the Camaldolese brothers' $20 fruitcake, a rich, brandy-dipped loaf stuffed with cherries, pineapple and pecans.

A short path took us past the monks' cloistered area to a modest brown retreat house with nine guest rooms ($45 per night, including meals, most of which are vegetarian), each with a sink and toilet; the showers are communal. To preserve solitude, all rooms are single occupancy, and each has its own garden overlooking the ocean.

I found it auspicious that I was staying in the St. Romuald room, named after the 11th century Italian founder of the Camaldolese order. The room was simple: a cot with a well-worn blanket, an old writing desk and a table with a tray of mismatched dishes and cups to serve myself from the shared kitchen three doors down. There was a heater but no TV, no phone, no keys. When I was not in my room, it remained unlocked and unguarded. "We've never had a problem," said the monk who served as host.

None of the other visitors seemed to mind. I met them occasionally in the kitchen, where the monks set out food to take to our rooms. The other guests were young men, middle-aged women and older gents. To preserve the silence, we smiled and nodded when we crossed paths but made no small talk about where we came from, how we earned a living or why we were there. It was slightly awkward, but refreshing too. I had to nudge my husband only twice to remind him not to talk.

At noon Sunday, a monk delivered lunch, the main meal of the day, in a handcart to our communal kitchen. I helped myself to eggplant casserole and country-fried potatoes.

The food was good, but that wasn't why I was here. I came to savor a taste of an unhurried and contemplative life-and the monastery, I discovered, is as much a state of mind as a location. It's a world of austere simplicity. Here, silence has the power to restore.

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