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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Hermits of Big Sur

by Paula Huston

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

I identify with people in this book, primarily after raising my 3 sons by myself and attending to the needs of my graduate/undergraduate students. I was uniquely exhausted but in love with the Christ who loved me first! In 2015 after giving my house to my university professor son for his wife and children I took vows as a consecrated hermit and lived in a small one room apartment in Chicago. What I spent my time doing was interviewing the good work of priests and other ministers and reviewing religious books for a magazine entitled Profiles In Catholicism. I spent hours in prayer for many issues: the response of men to the call to priesthood and other issues that had to do with Christ and His Church. I taught for 3 more years and changed course to being a hermit. The author writes this book with such clarity and passion there will be further movement to the hermitages. The author, Paula Huston, presents us with some beautiful images: Between World War II and Vatican II, as Italy struggled to rebuild after decades of Mussolini’s fascism, an eleventh-century order of contemplative monks in the Apennines were urged by Thomas Merton to found a daughter house on the rigged coast of California, a brilliant but world-weary ex-Jesuit, who had recently withdrawn from a high intensity public life to go into reclusion at the ancient Sacro Eremo of Camaldoli, was tapped for the job.

Based on notes kept for over sixty years by an early American novice at New Camaldoli Hermitage, The Hermits of Big Sur tells the compelling story of what unfolds within this small and idealistic community when medievalism must finally come to terms with modernism. It traces the call toward fuga mundi in the young seekers who arrive to try their vocations, only to discover that the monastic life requires much more of them than a bare desire for solitude. And it describes the miraculous transformation that sometimes occurs in the individual monks after decades of Lectio Divina, silent meditation, liturgical faithfulness, and the communal bonds they have formed through the ‘practice of the privilege of love.’ The author first met the monks of New Camaldoli in 1991 when she was taken to the hermitage by one of the characters in this book, Janet Walker. She was not a Catholic, not even a Christian at this point. She reverted to her childhood faith and wondered what would happen to her life if she started taking religion seriously again?

Janet, the first person she met, led her into the hermitage church, where she proceeded to attend her first Mass at the hermitage. During the passing of the peace, a slender dark haired monk leaned over and whispered: Um yah, yah. He was the first monk who made friends with. This was the St. Olaf fighting song! The first monk, Joshua Monson was a Midwestern Norwegian who convinced me that a Norwegian could become a Catholic! She then made friends with another monk, the irrepressible Fr. Bernard Massicotte. He and I would take long walks down the mountain. On the way, he’d catch me up on hermitage gossip, tell French jokes and prod me to say the rosary, his way of introducing me to the culture of Catholicism. When the two of us got to Highway 1, we’d walk to the middle of the road and touch our feet to the painted centerline, then trudge the two miles back up the hill. Many of the Massicotte stories in this book came from those hikes.

Story after story draws us to the life of an oblate. The author tells how she became friends with Br. Emmanuel Wasinnger for years before the two of them ever had a conversation. His shy tender smile conveyed his regard without his having to say a word. One day, after Mass he stayed back to ask if he could speak to me in the confessional. There we sat in straight back chairs facing one another where he cleared his throat several times before confessing that he spent too many years not talking and would like to learn how to do it. Would I be willing to help him practice? For me, Brother Emmanuel was the quintessential monk, and his spirit pervades this book. National Endowment of the Arts Fellow Paula Huston is a longtime oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage. The author of two novels and seven works of spiritual nonfiction, she lives with her husband Mike on four acres eighty miles south of Big Sur, where they grow olives, keep bees, and raise vegetables. It is a book of goodness everyone should read.

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