Here in the States (USA), we like to observe milestones: 50, 100, 150, 200 year on. The recorded history of European settlement is a relatively short period compared to the development of cultures in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, which span millennia. So when something connected to the USA can date is origins 1000 years, we are doing pretty well.
Now, I’m not talking about the Indigenous Cultures, which seek their origins in oral histories and maybe archeological dating guesses. Their methods of thought start with different view points other than data like dates. Such view points constructed a different type of history, unless you are a hermit. But, hermits and mystics have been setting themselves apart from Greco-Roman-European ways of experiencing the world throughout history.
1023-2023. One thousand years. Imagine that.
One thousand years ago, next year, in the Italian mountains of Tuscany, Sacro Eremo, a hermitage was founded. Big deal, you say? Big Sur, I say.
My origins of being a hermit, of sorts, dates back to my eighth birthday, by which circumstances, l learned that I was born on the same date as Buddha. 1/365 chance, you say. 364/365 chance not, I say. Circumstances allowed me to be in Japan at a time of childhood awareness.
I happened to grow up in California, not too far from Big Sur, though I do not recall traveling through that coastal highway until my mother’s 80th birthday when that was her wish to re-live memories. In college, my classmates deemed the most likely to be a monk in a past life. Not bad when popularity, sports, and material gain where more on most people’s aspirations.
Then a few months ago, while reading a devotional passage, I recalled how much I enjoyed coming across the author, Paula Huston. Her notes mentioned a recent book, The Hermits of Big Sur. I had planned a month of convalescence at home with my mother in May, so I ordered a copy for the trip. I did not expect that I would be able to make the 4 hours trek to Big Sur this time, but I could at least travel vicariously, to a hermitage no less.
I anticipated a whimsical set of short stories about eccentrics hermits living in the coast mountains. What I began to read was a detailed history of monastic life and Catholic church history spanning that thousand year period. As I did not know the difference between a hermitage and a monastery, nor much about the various orders beyond their names, Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits, et al, I was in for an education. And, if I expected lots of purity and unity, this book would erase such notions. The body of Christ is made up of many parts, not all of which agree with their attachments nor functions. This is a book about social and personal development.
Society and individuals are not static. We are not cogs in machines, strings on an instrument, nor implements in a tool shed. The Hermits of Big Sur is about how organizations form and transform. It is about how the individuals who sought out this setting come with various levels of commitment and understand, to be transformed through the grace of which Paul writes. Some will be writers, others musicians, gardeners, scientists, mechanics, cooks, followers and leaders. While they may have sought out the solitary life, they will not be completely detached from vocation nor community.
This brings up one of the points of learning for me. Monastic life may be solitary at times and communal at times. In the history of the original Sacro Eremo setting, these two branches developed. In 1072 the solitary hermitage of Camaldolese was approved by the church. In 1212, the affiliated communal St. Michale of Murano Monastery was founded. While their sites were separated, the members could flow between them as they felt inspired. When they needed a time of isolated contemplation, they could petition to move to the hermitage. When they needed a time of connection, they would petition to move to the monastery.
Human history is constantly changing, possibly progressing, possibly regressing, depending on one’s view point. Ms Huston outlines many changes in the development of Camaldolese, it’s daughter hermitages and monastic communities, including the New Camaldoli in Big Sur. While our modernist perspective and high-tech obsessions with designed obsolescence may skew our sense of time, prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, changes seemed slower. The political struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries seemed to accelerate the conflicts, and poor decisions of leadership (such as the co-opting of the Catholic church by Musollini and Hitler in a exchange of righteousness and state power).
This was the context of the late 1950’s when a delegation of hermits traveled to the USA to seek a location for a new site, and the church began to seek reforms that manifested themselves in the Vatican II documents, to the praise of some and protest of others.
The 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s only seemed to accelerate the changes in society, the church and the hermitage. Again, Ms. Huston outlines these, identifying the conflicts and resolutions, and gives faces to the men, and eventually women on retreat, who populate the Big Sur hermitage of New Camaldoli. In these individual’s life accounts, some of those eccentric stories, which I expected when I hit the purchase button on my computer, show up. As with any history, the personal accounts which we can identify must be placed in the larger context of the past.
Life is not static. The hermit’s life is not escape, but grounding in that solitude and contemplation. With this solidly in place, one inclined to flee the distractions and attachments of social life can return in various fashions to apply their talents, their gifts. One can teach though their vocation the simple life of retreat to those who come from that communal world.
When you are ready, pick up a copy of The Hermits of Big Sur, find a quite place, read, contemplate, then return to your community refreshed to use your talents, your gifts, with less distraction and attachment. For me, hours of solitude are easy. But, I think that I shall join with the neighbors and friends to fix some pot holes along our HOA’s roads, pull some weeds in the garden, and converse around the fire pit.