Between World War II and Vatican II, as Italy struggled to rebuild after decades of Mussolini’s fascism, an eleventh-century order of contemplative monks in the Apennines were urged by Thomas Merton to found a daughter house on the rugged coast of California. A brilliant but world-weary ex-Jesuit, who had recently withdrawn from a high-intensity public life to go into reclusion at the ancient Sacro Eremo of Camaldoli, was tapped for the job. Based on notes kept for over sixty years by an early American novice at New Camaldoli Hermitage, The Hermits of Big Sur tells the compelling story of what unfolds within this small and idealistic community when medievalism must finally come to terms with modernism. It traces the call toward fuga mundi in the young seekers who arrive to try their vocations, only to discover that the monastic life requires much more of them than a bare desire for solitude. And it describes the miraculous transformation that sometimes occurs in individual monks after decades of lectio divina, silent meditation, liturgical faithfulness, and the communal bonds they have formed through the practice of the “privilege of love.”
National Endowment of the Arts Fellow Paula Huston is a longtime oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage. The author of two novels and seven works of spiritual nonfiction, she lives with her husband Mike on four acres eighty miles south of Big Sur, where they grow olives, keep bees, and raise vegetables. She spends her days in the garden, the kitchen, and her writing studio, endlessly inspired by two devoted dogs and four fascinating grandchildren.
"Like a novel or a family history, with diverse characters ranging from the chemist to the guitarist, Paula Huston tells the story of the Camaldolese hermits of Big Sur. Having co-founded more than one hermitage at the same time as New Camaldoli, I can attest to the authenticity of the hermits’ struggles to survive in the wilderness; live out the age-old tension between solitude, community, and outreach; and after 900 years of harsh monastic practices, weather 'the female invasion' and other humanizing changes from Vatican II in a true spirit of 'derring-do.'"
Tessa Bielecki was a co-founder of the Spiritual Life Institute and the Nada/Nova Nada hermitages and is now co-director of the Desert Foundation and the author of Holy Daring, Season of Glad Songs, and Desert Voices
"Paula Huston’s very readable history of the Camaldolese monastery at Big Sur gives a very clear picture of the challenges faced and overcome in establishing an eremitical monastery on the coast of California. She tells the story by focusing on the people involved, how they discovered monastic life and how the unique experience of each has contributed to the unfolding of the community’s charism. The result is a realistic and very human portrayal of this distinctive chapter of monastic history."
Michael Casey, OCSO, author of Balaam's Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year
"This is a wonderfully affectionate and informative look at the holy ground that has been a source of prayer, revelation, and grace for so many."
Ron Hansen, Santa Clara University, author of Mariette in Ecstasy and Hotly in Pursuit of the Real
"This story of how one monastic community found its place on earth and in the evolving church will certainly appeal to those who already recognize monasteries as spiritual oases. Protestants, people of other faiths, seekers, and skeptics will find in it points of connection with a tradition they may look upon with curiosity and occasional longing for what has been lovingly, quietly preserved by people called to prayer. Any thoughtful reader will appreciate the sheer skill of a storyteller who reaches deep into Catholic history to trace how lives are brought together for purposes that unfold in faith, sometimes among goats and tractors and clueless visitors. Huston offers an intimate glimpse into the complex community life, life-giving humor, and humble wisdom of men who know something about love the rest of us can’t afford to forget."
Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and Word by Word
"In The Hermits of Big Sur author Paula Huston uses her exceptional literary skills to introduce us to individuals who are hidden to us but who nevertheless pray for us constantly. Deftly, she weaves together the thousand-year history of the Camaldoli order with intimate details of monastic life at Big Sur. Above all Huston shows us the deep Christ-like community these hermits have been able to develop."
Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline and Sanctuary of the Soul
"Absolutely fascinating, gorgeously written, frequently brilliant. In her story of how an ancient monastic order found a home in California, and how the author found a home with them, Paula Huston offers us an invitation into a world that few see, but all will want to experience."
James Martin, SJ, author of Learning to Pray
"This work of modern history, engagingly written, tells the story of a place that in its purpose and use reminds us more of medieval examples."
Spirituality & Practice
“T.S. Eliot once said of a sacred place: ‘You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.’ In Paula Huston’s graceful, engrossing narrative history of New Camaldoli, she has given us privileged access to another such place. Even if you can’t go there yourself, this book will enrich your sense of what contemplative prayer and the monastic life offer to every living soul.”
Gregory Wolfe, author of Beauty Will Save the World
"The Hermits of Big Sur is a remarkable book. Meticulous in research and engaging in tone, it explores some of the most significant and turbulent moments in the history of Italy and America through the lens of the thousand-year-old Camaldolese Benedictine order in the mountains of Tuscany, and the order’s sometimes challenging relationship with its young daughter house in California. It is also an affectionate homage to the monks the author has known over the decades of making retreats there, full of her admiration for the life they lead and the wisdom they have shared with so many from their foundation over fifty years ago. More than a fascinating introduction to the rich and complex history of eremitical monasticism, this book is also an invitation to drink from monastic spirituality’s deep life-giving springs."
Deborah Smith Douglas, Oblate OSB Cam, is the author of The Praying Life: Seeking God in All Things
"Paula Huston’s history of the founding of New Camaldoli Hermitage reads like a novel, recounting the tumultuous story of planting the seeds of a thousand-year-old tradition on fresh but wild American soil. Told with obvious love as well as unflagging dedication to research, this work is sure to delight monks and oblates and serve as a warm introduction to the unique spirit of an incredible place on the edge of the continent."
Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., Prior, New Camaldoli Hermitage and author of The God Who Gave You Birth
"What an extraordinary gift Paula Huston’s The Hermits of Big Sur has revealed itself to be. Who would have thought a seventy-year history of a Camaldolese monastery that rose in the wilds of the California coast could turn out to be such a page-turner! Paula Huston is a truly gifted writer, as she has proven time after time with her fiction and her essays, and this book is no exception, especially because it has shaped her and in turn can shape us. There’s so much history here—world history, American history, Church history, the major movements from Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin to the opening dialogues between East and West, the aftermath of Vatican II, the worlds of Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller, hippydom and radical feminism. And at the heart of it all, the need to find that necessary solitude and solace and true companionship which only the interior Mystery at the still point can provide."
Paul Mariani, Biographer, poet, and author of Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius and The Mystery of It All