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Pico Iyer: Unsurpassed Contemplation at Big Sur's New Camaldoli Hermitage

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The retreat's grounds include the cloister garden.

Above you, at night, are so many stars you might be standing under a salt shaker. Before you, when the sun comes up over the ridge, are 1,200 feet of golden pampas grass running down to the great blue expanse of the Pacific. Around you are 800 acres of pristine wilderness in one of the most transporting landscapes on the planet, along the Big Sur coastline. And when the bells behind you begin to toll, you notice that the silence here is not an absence of noise so much as a presence, as sharp and distinctive as a wall of transparent glass.

You head off, if you are so disposed, to the light-filled chapel a minute’s walk away, where 15 white-robed monks, led by a prior who’s an internationally celebrated musician, sing ancient, haunting psalms. And if you don’t long for that particular form of sustenance, you simply sit in your rocking chair and watch a fox running along the fence in the private walled garden just outside your small but comfy room. At dusk, deer graze outside your window. And whether you’re reading at your desk overlooking the ocean or sitting on a bench overlooking the blue-green waters far below, you feel as if a lens cap has suddenly been taken off and you’re seeing what you love and what you should be doing with your life with a clarity you’ve seldom known before.

I’ve been a professional travel writer for more than 30 years, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit everywhere from Easter Island to Bhutan, and Ethiopia to Patagonia. But I confess: I’ve never discovered a place as transforming and as radiant as the New Camaldoli Hermitage, just south of the little town of Lucia in Big Sur. It’s not just that being free of Wi-Fi, cellphones, chattering TVs and obligations makes every day last a thousand hours; it’s that spending even 48 hours in silence brings up to the surface what sustains you and everything essential that gets lost in the rush of everyday obligations.

Since my first visit to the hermitage in 1991, I’ve gone back more than 80 times, sometimes staying for weeks, sometimes driving seven hours just for the chance to have lunch and a taste of its shining blue silences.

The heart of Benedictine hospitality has always been simplicity and kindness. In keeping with this, a stay at New Camaldoli requires less planning than almost any trip you’ve taken. Log on to contemplation.com a few weeks (or, better, months) in advance of your proposed trip, and you’ll see what kind of spaces are available. The monastery offers nine basic motel-like rooms, each with its own toilet, rocking chair and garden, gathered in a single building around a kitchen and two showers; it also has five trailers scattered around the hills, each with its own kitchen and shower. Fresh food is set out in the communal kitchen three times a day, to be eaten in your room or around the property. A suggested donation of $125 a night (a little more for the trailers) is collected in the goodie-filled monastery bookshop, and though you can stay for up to a week, a visit of three nights may be best, especially for your first trip. Nearly all the rooms are for single guests, but I have stayed there with my wife, taking trailers next to each other, and I would say that more women are usually in evidence at the hermitage than men, further softening and sweetening the atmosphere.

Once you’ve made your reservation, you can forget about visas, inoculations, heavy packing and long lines at the airport; and, on the appointed day, drive toward Highway 1. Roughly two hours north of San Luis Obispo, as the road grows narrower and more luminous, with whales surfacing on one side and golden, lion-colored hills on the other, you come to a tall cross and a small sign on the mountain side, and drive up the winding private monastery road to what can feel very much like heaven.

Going on retreat has always been a basic human need, but has it ever been so urgent as in our all-over-the-place, 24/7 world? The World Health Organization has been quoted as calling stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century,” and many of us have so little time, we can’t even see how little time we have.

Drive up to New Camaldoli, however, and your schedule and then your being almost miraculously open up. The monks – sometime scholars, psychologists, Coast Guard workers and painters – are full of down-to-earth companionship and counsel if you want it, but happy to let you roam and rest as you wish. The other retreatants are often real estate brokers, lawyers, writers and mothers who start to feel like your oldest friends, if only because they’ve come to restore themselves just as you have. Though most go for silence, conversation is welcome along the monastery road, which twists 2 miles down to the highway and opens out these days onto a new trail winding into the hills.

Over my years at the hermitage, I’ve talked to future rabbis and Peruvian women in love with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I’ve met scientists who’ve told me about travels to the Antarctic and infectiously jolly teachers who tell me about teaching meditation to juvenile delinquents. I’ve talked to the monks about Shakespeare and singer Leonard Cohen and their recent trips to India. But most of all, I’ve discovered a place where I can hear myself as nowhere else, and see, with new vividness, the people and things that mean the most to me, allowing me to return to my daily life with a new sense of energy and purpose.
Though many of the people who visit the hermitage are Catholic, many are Sufi or Buddhist or nothing at all. Everyone finds what she needs there, I think, and what she holds deepest. I’ve introduced the place, with delight, to my mother, to a Zen painter friend, to many a high-flying engineer in Silicon Valley. And maybe five times a day, though not a Catholic myself, I’ll slip into the chapel just to watch the sun stream in through the skylight and sit before a candle flickering against a wall.

Some years ago, National Geographic magazine invited me, as a travel writer, to go, at the company’s expense, to any destination on the planet, to write about a “special place.” I knew my editors were expecting me to choose Paris or the Serengeti, the Himalayas or Jerusalem. But I also knew there was only one place on Earth that had profoundly changed my life and shown me how to live. I got into my car, headed toward the sea, and found my special place just three hours up the road from my mother’s home in the hills of Santa Barbara.

Pico Iyer is the author of many books about travel and the modern world, among them “Video Night in Kathmandu,” “The Global Soul” and, most recently, “The Art of Stillness.” He is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and divides his time between Southern California and Japan.


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