From the 1,300-foot high perch of Big Sur’s New Camaldoli Hermitage, the stunning view takes in the dark crook hook of Cape San Martin, where offshore fishing ship wakes trail off like ellipses into a blank page of sea. As night falls, the passing vehicle headlights resemble bright beads on the band of highway below.
While these visions of the Big Sur coast are a sight to behold, the Hermitage, which is home to 18 Roman Catholic monks, appeals even more to your sense of sound. Up here, communal living is stripped of civilization’s constant cell phone rings, email alert dings and car horns.
Sure, one can escape the sounds of contemporary life by hiking into the backcountry, but the Hermitage offers a unique harmony to its monks and its visitors, or so says Father Robert Hale, who has resided at the serene spot for 15 combined years.
“We think everyone needs a balance between solitude and community,” he says.
People interested in experiencing the soothing power of the site don’t need to start taking vows to experience the Hermitage. Though overshadowed by the nearby Esalen Institute and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the Hermitage offers lodging and possible enlightenment at a price that is a revelation unto itself ($130-$185 a night including three meals for a single individual).
This fall, there have been a few disruptions to the ground’s peaceful daily silence as three new private retreats are being built. The private retreats are fully contained units with their own bed, kitchen, bathroom and shower, and decks offering South Coast views that can hold their own with any of Big Sur’s luxury resorts. Other accommodations at the Hermitage include several guesthouses, a few monastic cottages right next to the monks’ cottages that are only open to male visitors, and a retreat house with nine rooms that share shower and kitchen facilities.
When famed travel writer and longtime Time Magazine essayist Pico Iyer was given the chance to travel anywhere in the world for National Geographic Magazine, he chose Big Sur and the New Camaldoli Hermitage. “I have been traveling all over the world for 40 years now, from Tibet to Ethiopia and my home in Kyoto, to Easter Island and North Korea and Bolivia,” Iyer writes by email from the less exotic locale of Glendale. “But I can honestly say that I’ve never found anywhere that changes me to the core as the New Camaldoli Hermitage does.”
His 2014 book, The Art of Stillness, features an eloquent passage on the Hermitage. Iyer views the place as a necessary pit stop for recharging ideas and worldview. “For many years, the Hermitage was the place where I went to renew myself, to get perspective on my life, to clear out my head and system, to let what was most important to me rise to the surface,” he says. “I loved the solitude, the silence, the way every day lasted 1,000 hours, and, of course, the natural beauty of the Big Sur coastline, and my desk and private garden looking out on the great, still, blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean below.”
For me, a newcomer who has only stayed at the Hermitage twice, the quiet atmosphere here is like a balm that heals the chafing from the non-stop movement of contemporary society. But Hale notes that there have been a few visitors to the facility who can’t deal with all of the serenity and peacefulness.
“They drive up in the afternoon, and they drive off that same evening,” he says. “They bring all their fears inside, all the need for distraction like TV, radio, the smartphone, noise.”
The first time I stayed in one of the Hermitage’s private retreats I kept rereading a section of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule that hung on the wall and seemed to truly capture what I was feeling during my first night on the property.
It reads: “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.”
As I sat there, I had a clarity of thought that I hadn’t felt for a long time. Without the distractions of civilization, metaphors for Big Sur’s beauty, plans for my future, and a sense of purpose bubbled up from a previously unexplored inner depth.
Or as Iyer, the Hermitage’s unofficial poet laureate puts it: “My definition of an amazing destination is one that sends one back home a different person from the one who left. Even after 80 stays in the Hermitage over 24 years, some of them lasting three weeks, every time I come back I am happier, healthier, energized and have a crystal-clear, excited, pointed sense of what I want to do in life and what I really care about.”