To this day, Ovalle says, being an oblate and part of the community means she has a refuge when she gathers with them—and when she is alone. “When you gather and you chant, you pray and you have your Eucharist,” she says, “you share and you become a family.” But from decades of the Camaldolese oblate life she also learned that St. Romuald’s advice to “sit in your cell as if in paradise” does not apply only within the monastery. “Sitting in that cell,” she says, “is wherever you are. Wherever I am, I have the ability to sit in the cell and be with God.”
For people drawn to solitude, the average Catholic parish can be the antithesis of what they seek, with coffee and doughnuts being wheeled into the sanctuary right after Communion and constant admonitions to volunteer, participate, donate, mix and mingle. In the early 2000s, Jacqueline Chew, a concert pianist and member of the music faculty at UC Berkeley, found herself “searching for more quiet.” Chew had long felt drawn to the contemplative life, but she’d been reading Thérèse of Lisieux and figured the only way to achieve it was by becoming a cloistered nun, which would mean giving up playing concerts. Even at retreats, she says, “if there’s a piano there, I’m not able to play it because you have to be quiet.” Like many musicians, Chew says “music is the way that God speaks to me and I speak to God,” so giving it up seemed out of the question.
She heard about Incarnation Monastery and the Big Sur community at a retreat center where one of the Camaldolese monks came to speak. As she began attending Incarnation “little by little,” she also decided to make a retreat at Big Sur, where she met her first oblate. “I didn’t know what that was,” Chew says. “So she explained it to me. As soon as I knew that this was an avenue that I could explore, I said, I want to do it. I knew right away.” After a year’s discernment, Chew took her oblate vows in 2005. When I asked her what about the Camaldolese charism appealed to her, balance came up again. “The balance of solitude and quiet and community,” she says, “which is important, is the balance that I’m looking for.” On the oblate page of the monastery’s website, the importance of silence and solitude is reinforced. For oblates, the monks write, “it is especially important to seek for silence and solitude of the heart, which can be found everywhere if one has learned how to remain in vital contact with the depths.”
Even while the Incarnation community had to shut down for in-person services during the pandemic like every other religious community, the oblates and monks were, in some ways, better prepared for the pandemic’s long stretches of isolation and solitude. But they still wanted and needed to meet in community. Chew has helped to keep the oblates connected throughout the pandemic. She handles the monastery’s email newsletter, which goes out to two hundred and fifty people. Before the pandemic, Incarnation would have “quiet days” four times a year when they would have talks and meals together; “it was really special,” Chew says. She would email her friends “don’t miss this” invitations, and when the monks found out, they invited her to begin writing the monastery newsletters.
Those newsletters went from monthly to weekly during the pandemic. The current prior, Fr. Bede Healey, was adept with technology according to Chew, and he quickly suggested Zoom check-ins. The community also founded a Zoom book club and moved the practice of collatio, a group reflection on the week’s Scripture readings, to Zoom. This not only kept the local oblates connected but also enabled oblates from all over the world to get to know the community better. Because people travel from international locations to do retreats at Big Sur, they sometimes also end up visiting the Incarnation community while they’re in the Bay Area, where most flights land. For the community in Berkeley, according to Chew, the pandemic-forced shift to meeting online has “really strengthened the relationships” with oblates around the world, “for us to get to know them better and for them to get to know us. The ones who live far away often don’t have any oblates near them.”
The community has even celebrated new oblates making their vows on Zoom, and people just keep coming, Chew says. The weekly email now includes a recording of the Sunday homily, which adds another layer to keeping people connected to one another. And the Camaldolese balance of solitude and community helped many oblates survive the horror and tragedy of the pandemic. As Chew notes, an oblate understands that “you’re alone, you’re at home, and you’re not going anywhere.” For many oblates, as for the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the centuries of monks and oblates who have followed in their wake and lived through plagues, wars, and political chaos, the solitude of the pandemic only strengthened their practice. For oblates, says Chew, being a part of Incarnation means “you’re on a journey and you can be as active or as quiet as you want. And it’s all accepted.”
As I prepared to leave my meeting with Fr. Colnaghi, he handed me a letterpress broadside. Smoke from wildfires around the state hovered in the air, somewhat obscuring the spectacular view, but that smoke also tinted the air a golden color, much like the light you see in Italy, where many centuries ago St. Benedict and St. Romuald first envisioned a life balancing prayer and work, solitude and community. The broadside was etched with St. Romuald’s brief rule, which begins with the instructions to sit in the cell and ends with the advice to “empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” That advice is more challenging than many people realize. But it also has infinite rewards.
Those rewards were clear for my friend Paula, who found Incarnation Monastery near the end of her life. After a recurrence of cancer, she wanted a chance to pray in community, but a change of diocesan leadership and pastors at the big and bustling parish we used to attend together had fractured that community and scattered it across the Bay Area. Paula was solitary by nature and sometimes prickly about socializing; the fact that she could pray at Incarnation without feeling pressured to participate in group activities meant she found the balance she needed there. Paula attended Eucharist there until her body broke down and she could no longer go. Her funeral Mass was held at Incarnation almost four years ago, and the simplicity of the monastic service drew each of us in: just prayer and chant, breath in and breath out.