By Mabel Plaskett
Nearby an open gateway on the Coast road just south of Lucia Lodge is a sing. It is a creation of mosaic artistry by Louisa Jenkins, a resident of Partington Ridge. The sign read “The New Camaldoli Hermitage” and points the way to the only foundation of its kind in America.
The road to the Hermitage weaves back and forth up the mountain rising to a height of 3,100 feet where around an abrupt turn the site of the monastery lies before you nestled in a little valley surrounded by towering redwoods and other native trees.
From this point the view is breath taking. To the west the blue Pacific glistens beneath the sun. To one side we look across a great chasm of rugged rock to a green oasis of fern and native growth. Far above, presiding over all, Cone Peak stands out in kingly grandeur. In this magnificent setting the Camaldolese live.
In February, 1958 the Reverend Dom Augustine Modotti came to the west coast, having been sent from the Order’s Mother house in Camaldoli, Italy, to start a Hermitage in the new world.
He was looking for a place as similar as possible to the old Hermitage in Italy which is situated in a valley in the Apennines about 20 miles from Florence 4,000 feet above sea level. This site was given to the founder of the Order St. Romuald in 1012 by Count Maldoli for whom the Order is named. Campus Maldoli having been contracted to Camaldoli. St. Romuald’s Hermitage is still preserved and has been the Order’s Mother house for nine centuries, although St. Romuald established 30 monasteries throughout Europe.
Dom Modotti’s search ended when he saw the setting in the Santa Lucia mountains and he acquired 600 acres from William Earl and John Smart, owners of the Lucia ranch. This ranch had been the home of John Nesbitt of radio and television fame for many years until he sold to the King City men about five years ago. Here the Camaldolese brothers live their peaceful lives.
In a few months they have worked, great changes have been made. A beautiful chapel has been built where anyone may attend Mass at 10 a.m. Sundays. A guest house is provided where a brother greets visitors and answers any questions. Roads have been built all around the place, one leading up to a higher level where plans are being made to build the new Hermitage. This location is in a small clearing 2,100 feet above sea level and it is here the actual recluses will live.
When a Camaldolese hermit receives permission to become a recluse either permanently or for a given space of time he leaves his cell only in holy week to assist at the conventual Mass and on the feast of St. Martin and Quinquagesima Sunday to dine and converse with the other hermits for “recreation and charity” as the Declarations put it. On all other days of the year he remains in his cell and garden “in perpetual and inviolable silence” speaking only to his confessor or spiritual director.
The recluses are required to do at least one hour of manual labor daily “if possible in the open air in the garden.” Each recluse has a small walled garden around his cell and it is to him “a little paradise.”
The heavier manual labor in a Camaldolese monastery is done by the lay brothers. St. Romuald was the first monastic founder to make a special place in his Order for men who want to be monks but whose temperament and talents fit them better for manual work than for studies and the duties of the choir.
Monasteries need cooks, tailors, shoe makers, carpenters, barbers, painters and, handy men of all kinds, even electricians and plumbers. Truly, there is room for all. The lay brothers are not to be classed as servants. They are monks in the truest sense. Their life is solitary and less taxing mentally than a hermit’s and in a sense humbler. Perhaps that is why many saintly souls have preferred to be lay brothers. They have a full life of prayer, spiritual exercises and all aids to the life of holiness they seek. A Camaldolese Monastery could not exist without good lay brothers.
The chief work of the hermit is prayer. His day begins at 2:30 a.m. when the church bell rings for martins. Wearing over his white tunic and scapular the ample white hooded cowl with its wide sleeves similar to that of the Benedictines and Trappists, he goes to church for the first and longest office of the day. At 4 a.m. he returns to his cell for private prayer and study until seven.
After a half-hour meditation, he rejoins his brothers in the church for recitation of Prime after which the hermits, who are priests, return to their cells to offer Mass in the tiny chapel which is a part of each cell, the lay brothers and choir monks who are not ordained serves the Masses of the hermit priests.
A light breakfast of bread and coffee is taken after Mass and the hermit devotes himself to spiritual reading until 9 a.m. when tierce and sext are chanted in the church followed by the conventual. Mass always sung if a sufficient number of monks are present. The remainder of the morning is spent in study and manual labor. Dinner is taken at noon. Except when they dine together on certain great feast days the hermit is served a try in his cell by a lay brother who deposits it in a hatch in the wall of the cell neither seeing nor speaking to the hermit within.
The Camaldolese diet is meatless unless a monk is ill in the infirmary where meat may be served. Fridays the diet is reduced to bread, water and a serving of vegetables. Dinner is usually followed by a period of solitary recreation, but except for the two monastic Lents and fasting days, two or three times a week talking is allowed at this time and hermits may if they wish go for walks in the forest outside the cloistered bounds of the hermitage after vespers which are sung in choir at three o’clock in the afternoon. After a light supper the hermits close their days with a spiritual reading and the rosary. Then silence descends over the monastery and the hermits retire for a few hours rest before the bell calls them to martins and another day.
Let us go back to the beginning of the monastic era.
The Camaldolese claim a direct inheritance from two great saints, whom they call “our blessed fathers” St. Benedict and St. Romuald. The Camaldolese are Benedictines. The Benedictine largeness and liberty of spirit are proverbial. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict is their fundamental code of legislation. The Benedictine Rule clearly implies that there will always be a minority of souls divinely called to the hermit life. This was in the century when the Roman civilization was crumbling and the church was faced with the task of assimilating hordes of new Gothic converts.
St. Benedict wrote his Holy Rule for monks as an embodiment of their basic ideals and aspirations. Five centuries later St. Romuald established the hermit life on an organized basis, not deviating from the Benedictine Order, but developing and expanding it. The present day official title of St. Romuald’s Order is “The Congregation of Camaldolese Monk hermits of the Order of St. Benedict.”
St. Romuald’s vivid personality has been an inspiration to all disciples of the monastic movement through the centuries. He was very active, living here and there in monasteries or in solitude all over Italy attracting disciples, forming hermit groups, moving on with a consuming zeal, driven austerity. After a life of great accomplishment he died at the age of 120 at the hermitage of Valde Castro.
The Camaldoli’s story links a quiet mountain valley in the forest of the Apennines with a similar quiet valley in the Santa Lucia mountains. Here, guided by St. Benedict’s Rule, the hermits do all their work with their own hands, tend their gardens, live a balanced life of work and prayer. There are those who ask what good is it all. To them we say, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
A Father of the Desert said, “Who sits in solitude and quiet escapes three wars: hearing, seeing, speaking: yet against one thing shall he continually battle; that is his own heart.”
The Camaldolese are specialists in the spiritual life. They are an example from their mountain top of what divine grace can do with human nature, even ours. And who can say in these days of uncertainty that their prayers and intercessions are not sorely needed by a heedless world.
Mabel Sans Plaskett was born in Coralitas near Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountain area of California. Her father Edward Robert Sans ran a saw mill near Pacific Valley, along the Nacimiento – Ferguson road to the coast at Highway One. It was there she met Edward Abbott Plaskett, her husband. Mabel wrote about the coast and the pioneers of the 19th and 20th Centuries.