Author shares inspirational story of California hermitage

"The Hermits of Big Sur" by Paula Huston. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota, 2021). 192 pp., $24.95.

In the early 1970s when this reviewer was an undergraduate at Santa Clara University, an acquaintance told him about a community of hermits living in a monastery high atop a mountain in California's rugged and mountainous Big Sur area -- about 150 miles south of San Francisco and 300 miles north of Los Angeles.

On three occasions, I drove U.S. Highway 1 south from the Bay Area until I found a dusty, unpaved road that left the highway and climbed to the top of a mountain where I found a contemporary-styled monastic church in the midst of a group of "cells," small huts with one occupant in each.

There I could look down on as much of the Pacific Ocean as I could see of the sky. At night, this view of the heavens revealed a blanket of stars that boggled the mind.

Nearby were several rooms strung together for retreatants or visitors to occupy, and on each visit I became one of those occupants. Welcome to New Camaldoli Hermitage.

Paula Huston's book fills a need long unmet. For many years an oblate of New Camaldoli, she is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow who, with her husband, lives on four acres 80 miles south of Big Sur.

Huston's book is based on notes kept for over 60 years by a monk at New Camaldoli Hermitage.

She narrates the origins of the hermitage from the 11th-century Camaldolese community in the Apennine Mountains of Italy to the founding of a new Camaldoli in Big Sur, highlighting notable monks who contributed in particularly important ways to the 1958 foundation of the new community in post-World War II and pre-Vatican II California.

Central to the narrative of this book is Huston's description of the ways the new hermitage made the transition from its medieval tradition to its new home in the modern world where it located on 899 acres, 1,300 feet above the ocean.

Also noteworthy is how the monks of New Camaldoli dealt with the increasing interest of women in what they were about.

"The Hermits of Big Sur" tells one of the most interesting and most inspirational true stories to ever to develop in American Catholicism. Do not miss it.

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Finley is the author of more than 30 books on popular Catholic theology, including "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those In Between," "What Faith Is Not" and "The Seeker's Guide to Being Catholic."