Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, is a place of beauty and meditative solitude. But for the past two months, it has been actually physically isolated from the outside world due to severe storms on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway. The only access along the coast was over the Pfeiffer Creek Bridge on the Highway, which was severely damaged in a landslide, making demolition necessary for reconstruction.
Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, the prior, described the hermitage’s seclusion, saying, “We’re 55 miles from town.We’re in the most beautiful part of the country with silence and solitude. We’re at 1300 feet overlooking the ocean… It’s a fragile part of the coastline.”
Currently, the monks must obtain supplies by crossing over the Santa Lucia Range using the winding Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. This is the sole road that connects coastal Big Sur with the inland Salinas Valley — a 24-mile route that takes an hour. It eventually descends to the town of Jolon near Mission San Antonio de Padua, the third mission founded by St. Junípero Serra.
In addition to the damage inflicted on the Pacific Coast Highway, the hermitage itself has been battered. On the repairs, Fr. Cyprian commented, “The major damage is on our entry road. We cannot even start to rebuild it until they have done the construction work on the damaged highway below is. At this point we still only have a vague idea of what it will take, if we have to simply fix this road (which will cost upwards of $500,000) or put in a new road altogether, which will cost considerably more and take a long time with permits.”
Fr. Cyprian added, “There are no repairs on the road yet. We can’t get construction crews yet… There is damage south of our driveway. We’ve been landlocked for the past two months.” He continued, “Our main thing is financial help. We need to build a two mile entrance road, and we currently have minimal staff.”
Usually, deliveries are made on a weekly basis. He added, “It’s been nerve-wracking when it comes to food and fuel.”
Currently, the hermitage has a GoFundMe page that has made $257,000 of its $500,000 goal to compensate for its lack of income from guests.
Fr. Cyprian reflected on how this natural disaster caused by Pacific storms has renewed a deeper sense of prayer among his brother monks. The isolation from the outside world, Fr. Cyprian said, “Made our prayer and meditation deeper, a deeper prayer life. There’s more silence. It’s quieter.”
New Camaldoli is a congregation in the Benedictine order. They have a total of 22 members; currently, 10 are residing at the Big Sur hermitage while others are in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo, and Berkeley. In 1958, Harry John Jr., an heir to the Miller Brewing Company, donated his Big Sur property to monks from the Abbey of Camaldoli in Italy.
New Camaldoli looks to St. Romuald, who practiced the Rule of St. Benedict as a hermit. St. Romuald was born in Ravenna in AD 951. He went to the basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classe to become a monk. When he found the Abbey of Cluny insufficiently strict, he became a hermit in Venice. He founded the Camaldolese monks, writing a brief rule. In 1027, he died in his cell while at prayer. Fr. Cyprian said their founder made provisions for the solitary life within the Benedictine order.
Big Sur is famous for its bohemian lifestyle. The nearby Esalen Institute overlooks the Pacific. Fr. Cyprian said, “We fit right in. Monks are eccentric in this culture, and we’re eccentric as Benedictines in our solitude. We have a wonderful relationship with our neighbors, sharing resources.”
New Camaldoli looks forward to reopening by the end of April. Fr. Cyprian said, “We offer space. We rent rooms; we’re open all year long. We’re a spiritual hotel… It’s great to have people come and stay, and spend time with the Lord.”
Despite the recent disaster, Fr. Cyprian said of the Big Sur area, “It is hard not to believe in a beneficent Creator in this landscape. One can see the majesty of the universe and see the stars late at night.”