The Book of Hermits

Recreation Day at New Camaldoli Hermitage in the early 1960s. The photo comes from the Hermitage’s archives and is included, among other historical materials, in the book.

Sometimes books find their writers. For years, The Hermits of Big Sur has been pursuing Paula Huston. She discovered New Camaldoli Hermitage over 30 years ago, and 20 years ago she became an oblate, someone who follows monastic rule as closely as possible, which is “tricky when you are married with kids,” she says.

In a way, the story of the 60-year-old Camaldoli settlement gloriously located deep in Big Sur, an hour-and-a-half drive south of Monterey, landed in her lap. The Hermitage has always accepted visitors and laypeople, and gradually it built a community of devoted oblates – about 600 of them – all over the world. “They’ve been wonderful teachers,” Huston says, emphasizing that she established close relations with the monks years before the former prior, the late Robert Hale, asked her to help him with his notes.

In 1958, two monks were sent from Camaldoli in the Tuscan Apennines – where the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine family was founded at the end of the 10th century – to pick out a beautiful property in Big Sur, which was then purchased by a private benefactor. Father Hale was part of the second iteration of novices who arrived to build the community. He kept meticulous notes for 60 years, recording the history around him. When Huston agreed to help him with a book, they had something like a family history in mind.

“It was quite a project,” she says. “He would send me pieces that looked like elements of a jigsaw puzzle. Nothing was in order.”

Six weeks into this project, in 2017, Hale died and Huston was asked by current Father Cyprian Consiglio to embrace the project as her own. “Only then did I realize what I’m dealing with,” she says about what turned out to be quite a piece of 20th-century history, both Italian and American, monastic and secular.

The resulting book is as close to a nonfiction page-turner on monks as you can get, especially if you are interested in the history of the region. Huston was granted full access to the archives and found more that she could use. In fact, out of respect for living characters, she decided to limit herself to describing only the first 40 years of the Hermitage.

Since its inception, the Hermitage has been open to retreatants – men and women; thousands of them have visited over the last 60 years. The way of life embraced by New Camaldoli consists of intense doses of solitude within the frame of community life. “The Camaldolese cherish a threefold charism: golden silence, the privilege of love or community, and martyrdom or evangelization,” Huston says.

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