All in the Family

Review of "The Hermits of Big Sur" by Paula Huston

Some years after becoming an oblate at the New Camadoli Hermitage in California’s remote Big Sur, Paula Huston embraced God’s call to research and write this compact yet far-reaching and exhaustively researched history of the hermitage. 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.

Ravenna’s many pilgrimages exemplified the vocation of the “Romualdian way of life, known as the Triplex Bonum or Three-Fold Good: community, solitude and missionary-martyrdom,” the last being service to the world. In The Hermits of Big Sur, Huston elucidates this communal and individual vocation as it has developed with repeated deliberateness and hard-won reforms down the centuries. Perhaps Huston’s greatest achievement is how she weaves into this narrative the mystery of “‘fuga mundi,’ the overwhelming longing to flee the world.” Today those monks counterintuitively draw ever more lay seekers from all walks of life and countries to the Big Sur monastery, thus fulfilling one third of the Threefold Good.

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. Her selection of these personal primary sources form a cross-section of the monastery’s original residents from the 1950s to recent initiates. Guided by experienced eremitics, lay persons – like Huston herself – now make regular retreats at New Camadoli.

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 5,000 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 by persuading 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 too late to be thoroughly convincing. By then Mussolini posed no threat to the Church, which has too often 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 19th and 20th centuries’ difficult and complex Church-State relations eventually bloomed into years of negotiations to build a new hermitage in the U.S.

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. “An Italian who gets on a train introduces himself to his fellow passengers and states his business,” Modotti observed. “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.”

Though those two 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 dialogic community. Camadolese Prior General Anselmo Giabbani proposed combined eremitic and cenobitic communities.

Firebrand Modotti hotly opposed mixed houses. That and many accumulated minor rebellions resulted in his recall to Italy. 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 as necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for its establishment. 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 part of the Mass and more. This sentence at almost the exact centre of Hermits 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.”

Though hot, the long-running quarrels were not finally divisive. Instead, history shows the Catholic Church has slowly, steady made decisions that have kept it as one diverse, massive world-wide institution. That fact could shine a healing light on fractious and schismatic Evangelicals. Our fractured Reformed families are unfortunately a leading exemplar of division, though for ever more nit-picking theological points.

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 Genesee, 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 candour makes it marvellously human. 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 showing 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 fuga mundi retreats-from-the world in order to return to the world bear rich fruits of the contemplative life. All of us would do well to crave and emulate that.


  • James Dekker

    Jim is a retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary living in St. Catharines, Ontario. He thanks God for the hip and shoulder replacements now enabling him to move those joints painlessly. Jim reads lots of free books that he "pays for" with reviews. He was dragooned into being the President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting after an over-long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they hope to ride their tandem bike, “Double Dekker 2,” around Niagara and other places in the months, paddle canoes and kayaks, camp in their nifty new-to-them “r-pod” trailer, and visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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