A Review of
The Hermits of Big Sur
Reviewed by James Dekker
Some years after becoming oblate at the New Camadoli Hermitage in California’s remote Big Sur, novelist Paula Huston embraced God’s call to write this compact, yet far-reaching and exhaustively researched history of the hermitage. A testament to the strength and intensity of Huston’s call is that more than a decade passed before she began to research and longer still to write.
Methodology of Writing
First, she discerned she could not do justice to New Camadoli, unless she dug deeply into the history of the mother house, Sacro Eremo of Camadoli, founded more than a thousand years ago by San Romuald of Ravenna. After they had lost their spiritual way, the peripatetic monk restored monasteries in Italy, Spain and France. Additionally, he started several small hermitages before founding Sacro Eremo in the hills of Arezzo province in 1023, four years before his death.
His pilgrimages exemplified the vocation of the “Romualdian way of life, known as the Triplex Bonum or Three-Fold Good: community, solitude and missionary-martyrdom” (18), the last being service to the world. In The Hermits of Big Sur (hereafter Hermits) Huston elucidates this communal and individual vocation as it has developed with repeated deliberateness and hard-won reforms through the centuries. Perhaps Huston’s greatest achievement is her weaving this narrative that illuminates the mystery of “’fuga mundi,’ the overwhelming longing to flee the world (3).” Today those monks counterintuitively draw ever more lay seekers from all walks of life and countries to the Big Sur monastery.
Huston writes this brief history not chronologically, but via flashbacks and flash-forwards, artfully moving from big-picture events to revelatory stories from the lives and journals of select New Camadoli monks. These personal primary sources form a cross-section of the monastery’s original residents from the 1950s to recent initiates.
From Calm to Turmoil
The millennium-distant beginnings set the mother house’s steady course as a hermitage until the late 1860s. Then King Victor Emmanuel’s secular government seized hundreds of monasteries and convents, dislodging more than 5000 monks and nuns; Sacro Eremo was among the casualties. For years the Vatican plowed through difficult negotiations with subsequent governments to reclaim properties and cultural influence.
Those years foreshadowed Mussolini’s still more brutal repression of the Catholic Church from the 1920s until his execution in 1943. He cunningly co-opted the Church when he persuaded Sacro Eremo’s prior and overseeing cardinal to give his children First Communion and Confirmation. Not a few historians have judged such decades’ long decisions as compromises of Church integrity in the face of tyrannical civil authorities. Eventually in his 1944 Christmas address Pope Pius XII lauded democracy, signaling a new course for the church, but it was too late to be convincing. By then, Mussolini posed no threat to the Church, which has many times supported authoritarian governments.
Huston lucidly lays out these difficult years without judging papal decisions. Instead she shows how leading Catholic clergy recognized the damage done by those decisions and argues that they set the stage for New Camadoli. Starting in 1958, the difficult 19th and 20th century Church-State relations state eventually bloomed into years of negotiations to build a new hermitage in the USA.
Seeds of New Camadoli
On an exploratory trip that year, Camadolese monks Aliprando Catani and former Jesuit Agostino Modotti, scoped out real estate from Nebraska to California. In a Time Magazine article chronicling their journey, Modotti observed, “An Italian who gets on a train introduces himself to his fellow passengers and states his business…. Then follows a discussion of each one’s affairs… But in America… each traveler minds his own business. He sits alone, free and silent, reading and contemplating—if not Holy Scripture, then at least the New York Times. You are hermits at heart” (22).
Though the monks worked together for years, friction constantly roughened their relationship. Would the new monastery be exclusively eremitic or also cenobitic? In the former mode, monks live in individual cells, meeting mostly in silence at work projects, meals and mass, whereas in the latter, monks live in a dialogic community. Already in 1957 Camadolese Prior General Anselmo Giabbani had presented the Vatican new constitutional documents for the order, proposing combined eremitic and cenobitic communities.
Even before his and Catani’s trip, Firebrand Modotti had hotly and persistently opposed the new constitution providing for mixed houses. That and many other reasons resulted in his recall to Italy. After three years of virtual house arrest, Modotti was dismissed from his Camadolese vows and sent to Puerto Rico to establish a seminary. Yet upon his death in 1971, graciousness intervened and he was buried at New Camadoli, by now a growing combination monastery. Interestingly, in 1963, the Roman Catholic Church’s pivotal year, Catani was named Prior General.
How to Fight Fair
After detailing the intrigue of New Camadoli’s founding and first difficult years, Huston paints with great affection the hermitage’s development of its unique character. She cites monumental Vatican II decisions that boiled through the Catholic world for years. New Camadoli itself became a microcosm of the Church, fraught with arguments among monks about reforms to worship, such as the switch from Latin to the vernacular, new music as a part of Mass, and more. This sentence is almost exactly at the center of Hermits, and stands as its thesis: “The twentieth-century struggle of the Camadolese can in some ways serve as a microcosm of the great tug-of-war that was Vatican II” (96).
Though hot, the long-running quarrels were not finally divisive. Instead, history shows that the Catholic Church has slowly, steadily developed decisions that have kept it as one diverse, massive world-wide institution—a lesson for fractious and schismatic Evangelicals. As for New Camadoli’s often turbulent evolution, Huston herself deeply appreciates its current identity, influence, and service to the world through the lives and ministries of both eremitic and cenobitic monks. Like Genessee, Gethsemani and other abbeys, New Camadoli has opened once tightly closed doors to serve Christians and seekers from all over the world.
With this splendid book, Huston has painted Catholic history, fraught with regular power plays by high-ranking clergy. The book’s candor makes it marvelously human, richly nourished with stories from the lives of men—even a few women in recent years. Here Paula Huston offers us a paean to spiritual families fighting fairly.
Thanks to this once nominal Norwegian Lutheran, now New Camadolese oblate, for her narrative that shows how the Triplex Bonum works. The first and third charisms–community and missionary-martyrdom can be born only by practicing the second, solitude. Huston has articulated how the intention of fuga mundi is to retreat from the world in order to return to the world, bearing rich fruits of the contemplative life. All of us would do well to crave and emulate that.
James Dekker is a fully retired pastor of the Christian Reformed Church. In early years he did graduate studies in German and began reading Bonhoeffer while in basic training in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war. He could not claim conscientious objection because the CRC has no claim to pacifism.