Magazine article The Christian Century

Hermitage Sees Surge in Laypeople Who Want a Monastic Experience

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hermitage Sees Surge in Laypeople Who Want a Monastic Experience

Article excerpt

When Paula Huston first met the monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastic community perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, she was in her late thirties and considered herself an atheist.

"I don't think I'd ever even talked to a priest before, much less seen 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 is now one of hundreds of oblates, or people who affiliate with the monastic community while living in the world. They follow an ancient rule by St. Benedict that continues to guide daily living for monks and oblates alike.

When she first came, Huston noticed the "deliberate kindness" of the monks.

"After having gone through a divorce and divorce court, I was used to a much different attitude from people in my life," she said. "It was also the first time I had to look inside of myself.... What was I so angry about, and what had I been missing for years and years and years?"

The oblate program was launched in 1984 at a sister location in Berkeley, California, called Incarnation Monastery. At first there were only 15 oblates. By 2002, the numbers had swelled to over 350 oblates affiliated with both the monastery and the hermitage, which is in Big Sur. 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 laypeople who want to associate with religious communities.

"People know intuitively that there's something missing from their diet," said Father Cyprian Consiglio, who is prior at the hermitage. "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.

"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 shared commitment of monks and oblates to live by an ancient rule may not only ensure the survival of monasticism but also bring its way of life to a wider world. …

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