“Sit in your cell as in paradise,” begins St. Romuald’s Brief Rule, an eleventh-century text that guides the life of monks in the Camaldolese order. When you’re two miles up a winding road above the cliffs of Big Sur, with waves crashing inaudibly in the mist below, imagining yourself in paradise isn’t hard.
But I suppose it depends on what you mean by paradise. St. Romuald probably didn’t have in mind a sunny, sandy beach with lobster to eat and piñacoladas to drink. The Brief Rule ends by suggesting that one should be “like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother gives him.” But as I read those words at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, my fiancée and I were technically on vacation.
The first time I visited New Camaldoli, a decade earlier, was for something closer to a traditional pilgrimage. I found the hermitage during a month-long solo drive across the country. I was eighteen years old and had been baptized and confirmed only a few months earlier after a frenzied conversion, which had begun at another monastery, Holy Cross Abbey in Virginia. I set out on my cross-country journey in order to reflect on this whole experience.
When I saw a sign indicating that there were monks along that spectacular stretch of Highway 1, I had to...