BIG SUR, Calif. (RNS) When Paula Huston first met the monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastic community perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, she was in her late 30s and considered herself an atheist.
“I don’t think I’d ever even talked to a priest before, much less seeing a monk, and here were these monks, and they were dressed in their interesting and strange white robes, and it just struck me so hard that this was really a radically alternative way to live,” she recalled.
Huston, who taught writing at California State University in San Luis Obispo, is now one of hundreds of oblates, or people who continue to live in the world and affiliate with the monastic community. They follow an ancient rule for spiritual growth written 1,500 years ago by St. Benedict that continues to guide daily living for monks and oblates alike.
When she first came, Huston said, the kindness of the monks was striking, especially at that time in her life.
“It was almost a deliberate kindness that was offered to people,” she said. “And after having gone through a divorce and divorce court, I was used to a much different attitude from people in my life at that point. It was also the first time I had to look inside of myself — just to confront who was inside. Who was this angry young woman inside? What was I so angry about, and what had I been missing for years and years and years? What was I deeply longing for?”[ad number=“1”]
The oblate program was launched in 1984 at a sister location — an urban community in Berkeley called Incarnation Monastery. At first there were only 15 oblates. By 2002, the numbers had swelled to over 350 oblates affiliated with both Incarnation Monastery and the Hermitage, which is a much more remote location. Now the number is around 700.
By comparison, a total of 24 monks in the community have taken full vows. While the number of monks and nuns at many monasteries and convents has declined dramatically in recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of lay people who want to associate with religious communities, and that’s evident in Big Sur.
“I think people know intuitively that there’s something missing from their diet,” said Father Cyprian Consiglio, who is prior at the hermitage.
“If we’re not rooted in the spiritual,” Consiglio said, “which we believe is actually the deepest part of being human, then we’re not fully alive. And what’s really starving is our souls. We keep trying to fill it up on the outside, not realizing that there is this fountain inside.”
Consiglio described how Benedict’s rule lays out the day for the monks with proportion and balance among three activities: prayer, work and study. The monks combine solitude and community, living as hermits in individual cells and gathering for prayer throughout the day.
“We stop at several times a day to renew our prayer,” he said, “so that now I can go to the kitchen again and still keep praying there, and now I can meet with a retreatant and talk to her or him and still be mindful in prayer there, or I can do my work in my office and still be mindful.
“It’s not about escaping ordinary life,” Consiglio insisted. “It’s about coming back to ordinary life and realizing God was in this place, too, and I just didn’t see it before.”
The monks also practice lectio divina or sacred reading — listening for the voice of God speaking through Scripture or other texts.
Father Columba Stewart, a scholar of monasticism and a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., explained that what Benedict meant by “listening with the ear of your heart” is “paying attention to what’s inside and what’s operating at depths below the level at which we conduct most of our day-to-day lives.”
Spending time in solitude and silence at the hermitage was what helped Huston confront anxieties that she said had gripped her life since childhood.
“I was so busy, so stressed out all the time, always in a rush, never on time, way too many things on my ‘to do’ list,” Huston recalled. “I found that so many things would get blocked by the fear of something going wrong. I consciously handed that lifetime of anxiety over to God and said I can’t get rid of it on my own ... and I slept, and it was like being healed.”
Longing for a deeper relationship with God, Huston adapted the teachings and practice of prayer followed by the monks to her own life outside the monastery. Huston prays at home in the morning and evening and practices lectio divina. And, as St. Benedict recommended, she spends time every day doing physical labor, working on the land. Huston’s writing studio now doubles as a modified hermit’s cell, where she combines writing and prayer, which has changed how she sees her work.
“I used to see what I was doing as my path to the Pulitzer Prize,” said Huston, “and that is long gone. Now it’s my way of serving. That’s how I see it. And it’s my gift. I was given that gift, and I’m meant to use it that way.”
She also has discovered that following the rule and the example of the monks transformed her relationships with others. “When Mike, my husband, who has always struggled with computers, would ask me yet again for help, I listened to the tone of my own voice when I would be doing a good deed, but actually I was sounding impatient. I was learning from the rule and from watching the monks (and realizing) that it’s these little ways of behaving with one another, whether we approach someone with genuine warmth and gentleness or whether we stand back in a kind of cool and aloof way — that has an enormous impact on other people.”
“The real dynamic of the rule is to move from the self to the other,” said Stewart. “What Benedict is doing is providing a charter for making a community that really endures and that can encompass a variety of people. They’re all there for some purpose that’s really beyond themselves, this spiritual quest, and they recognize they can’t do it by themselves.”
Having found community at New Camaldoli, Huston now teams up with one of the monks to give retreats on Benedictine spirituality and its contemplative approach to life.
“In a sense,” Stewart said, “we’re going back to where it all began, with a variety of models of Christian ascetic life. And by ascetic I just mean disciplined, and that’s what people are recovering, and then they’re figuring out ways that they can live as individuals, as families, as loose associations of friends who find this particular path to be helpful and sustaining and nourishing to them.”
The shared commitment of monks and oblates to live by an ancient rule may not only ensure the survival of monasticism but also, Consiglio explained, bring its way of life to a wider world.
“This is a little village,” he said. “We’re living a life with our staff and our friends and our retreatants, beside the inner core community of monks, and hopefully we are modeling a way of life, modeling a different way to be in the world.”