Torrential rains have reversed the over-dry conditions plaguing California. But on one particular mountainside a drought of a different kind persists: Visits from the outside world have dried up at New Camaldoli Benedictine Hermitage in Big Sur, California.
“This may be the biggest challenge we’ve had to face as a community,” says Camaldolese Benedictine Father Cyprian Consiglio, the monastery’s prior, in an interview with me in early June.
“Our hospitality ministry is central to our life and our main source of income, too. We’re used to having 10-15 people here all the time for retreats or spiritual direction. We still don’t know when we’ll be able to welcome guests.”
The same rains that brought an end to California’s drought caused massive mountainside erosion and rock slides around and on the grounds of the monastery. A long stretch of Highway 1 and the 2-mile access road that runs to and from the monastery were closed completely. For several weeks, the monks were cut off, had no telephone service, and communicated with neighbors via walkie-talkie. Their fuel supply was iffy.
Father Cyprian says, “We run off a diesel generator, and have propane heat. Getting fuel deliveries was a little nerve-wracking. We evacuated one of our monks who was living in our infirmary and moved him to a nursing home for a month to save fuel. We moved our liturgies out of the chapel, and took to cooking in electric pans, too.”
More like camping than monastic life?
“I laughingly say, ‘This is what we train for,'” says Father Cyprian. “Not only are we monks, we’re from a specific reform tradition within the Benedictine world that accents solitude.”
Although the rains have subsided, road repair and access are unpredictable, or impossible, due to new rock slides and the potential collapse of one side of the mountain.
“They open the road twice a day when they’re doing their crew shift, unless there’s a rock slide danger” says Father Cyprian. “They took down the bridge to the north of Big Sur. If we need to go north, we park in Big Sur and walk a mile to cars that we have on the other side. Deliveries have to come over the mountains — a treacherous drive.”
With no guests and monumental road repair work that will be necessary to reopen to visitors, the monastery’s financial situation is nearly as precarious as the surrounding hillsides, despite donations from groups and individuals.
But, Father Cyprian says, “Having observed my brothers these five months, they’ve adapted beautifully, cutting down on everything, saving money.”
The cost-cutting moves have yielded blessings.
“There’s been a deepening of our communal prayer, fraternal charity and a spirit of joy about the place, more than usual,” says Father Cyprian. “I think it’s the forced simplicity, a sense of solidarity that we didn’t focus on so much before. We’re cognizant that we’re part of a bigger body — the body of the monastery, the archdiocese, all humanity that’s suffering.”
“I laugh about us having ‘dominion over the earth,'” says Father Cyprian, “as the mountain is sliding into the ocean. I think of the Holy Father (in “Laudato Si'”) trying to shift our understanding to be a little more nuanced, and of the responsibility we have.”
What is key to the monks’ resilient response to hardship?
“Always give priority to the spiritual practice,” says Father Cyprian. “I know it’s hard for families, for parents with children, but it’s very important. Stopping and praying. It’s non-negotiable for us, the bell rings four times a day, no matter what.”
So, he says, “Anytime people ask me, ‘How are the brothers doing?’ I say, ‘We’re wonderful. We’re broke, but wonderful!'”
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