There is a fashion among the hyper-competitive young executives of Menlo Park and Cupertino for “dopamine fasting”, a practice that discourages addictive behaviour by depriving the brain’s reward system of stimulation. For a day or two, you swear off booze, food, sex, Instagram and hanging out with other billionaires. Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, complements intermittent fasting with bouts of silent meditation.
A couple of hours’ drive south of the valley lies Big Sur, an idyllic stretch of mountainous coastline, where frazzled digital disruptors can sample ancient ascetic practices at any number of New Age retreats. But take a left off Highway 1, the coastal road down to Los Angeles, and you will encounter a level of self-denial that puts the fair-weather ascetics of the tech world to shame. The New Camaldoli Hermitage sits a mile above the ocean up a switchback track. Founded in the 11th century, the Camaldolese is an order of monks that reconciles the communal style of the traditional Benedictine monastery with the older tradition of solitude. “Sit in your cell as in paradise,” St Romuald, the founder, wrote in his rule. “Put the world behind you and forget it.” The Big Sur Camaldoli hermits sleep and pray in their cinder-block cells but come together at mealtimes and for the divine offices. They are sociable solitaries, eking out a life of renunciation in one of the most luscious natural settings imaginable.
In an outhouse I catch up with Bryan who, at 36, is one of two postulants at the hermitage – candidate monks trying out life in the order before being admitted as novices. Bryan’s faith is relatively new. He grew up in a Chinese-American family in San Jose. “I was an atheist,” he explains, unloading white vestments into a laundry basket, “a non-practising Buddhist”. His first visit to the hermitage was a revelation: “It’s the silence, the solitude, that really sold me.” In the background, the monastery bell tolls a solemn invitation to prayer.
The hermits’ day begins at 5.30am, with vigils, the ancient custom of sanctifying the hours of darkness with a sequence of chanted psalms. Lauds are sung at 7, followed by the midday prayer, and vespers combined with mass at 5pm. By the standards of traditional Benedictine observance, it’s a stripped-down liturgical schedule, allowing the monks plenty of time to sit in their cells in prayerful silence or study. But they are not exclusively contemplative. The monks also teach off-site and provide spiritual guidance for lay people who come here on retreat.
“So you see what a balance it is,” says Father Cyprian Consiglio, the prior. Cerebral and genially authoritative, Cyprian recently turned 60 but seems 20 years younger as we hike up the steep mountain trail above the hermitage. His German shepherd, Aldo, bounds ahead and, like a spiritual goal, disappears at intervals. In its earliest days, observance at the hermitage was closer to the Trappist ideal of austerity and near-absolute silence. But thanks to the freedom that Benedictine monasteries have from central command, the New Camaldoli has been able to adapt to the liberalism of its Californian setting. “There’s a possibility,” says Cyprian, “that this kind of life, because of its flexibility, may be a harbour for people who still want the monastic life, still want the liturgical spirituality, but don’t necessarily want that militaristic model that you so often find in monasteries.” Still, liberalism has its limits. “The liturgy, the scripture, the ritual, the tradition, is the container that holds this life together. You start losing that, it’s a free-for-all.”
Back at the hermitage I attend mass. The monks in their white habits sit on functional wooden chairs in their starkly lit, minimalist chapel. The congregation, ten of us in our unceremonious chinos and cagoules, sit farther back, and stand along with the monks when psalms are sung. “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” chant the monks in unison. “Our God is in heaven. He does whatever pleases him.” For the eucharist, we pass into the rotunda, lit a cooler, science-fictional blue. The congregation lines the walls as a monk swings incense. The priest raises his arms in consecration. One by one, each person steps up to receive the host.
It’s hard, witnessing the absorption of the monks in the liturgy, to imagine this pitch of observance ever fading. But, as with most monasteries across Christendom, the numbers are discouraging. Of the 15 monks remaining at the hermitage, 12 are over 60 years old. Bryan aside, new candidates are hard to come by. For Brother Bede Healey, the answer lies in greater openness. In 2017 Bede left the hermitage to become Superior of its daughter house, the Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley. “We have to stop thinking we know what young people need,” he tells me. “Whenever someone new comes, it’s this clash of time and cultures. That’s what’s creative. I think the people coming in today have even more to offer us than we have to them.”
Cyprian is more circumspect. “I’m quite open to experimenting with new ways of belonging,” he says, as long as it “doesn’t do away with the classical approach”. As it is, the leniency of the regime is controversial in some Catholic quarters. “The more conservative of our critics call us the hot-tub monks.” It’s Cyprian’s job to strike a balance between the reformists and the old guard. “The two guys who are coming in now, the two postulants, they’re getting by-the-books monastic history, monastic observance, liturgical spirituality.” It’s certainly what Bryan seems to want. Far from seeking recognition for the qualities he can offer the order, his purpose is complete renunciation of the material world. The local retreats catering to Silicon Valley executives offer a spiritual pick-me-up that is anything but renunciatory: you withdraw from the world to return better equipped to live in it. Here, withdrawal is permanent. “I have to crucify everything,” says Bryan, as we walk to midday prayers. “Die to all my desires. I have to give it all to the Lord.” Will he make it all the way to solemn vows? “I’m going to be buried here,” he says, erupting in laughter. “That’s the goal.”•