Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
The genius of the monastic life is its balance. The balance of prayer and work, ora et labora, is perhaps monasticism’s best-known export into secular society aside from booze-sodden fruitcake, but the more significant balance is between the life of the community and the monk’s ability to find solitude. Monks live, pray, and work together, but they also spend much of their time alone, spinning the radio dial of their souls in search of a voice. That voice is God’s, and they also hear it communally in the Liturgy of the Hours, and particularly in the Psalms.
The idea of a monastic community has changed over centuries, and that change has only accelerated in recent decades. Today, oblates—lay people who make formal promises, which they call vows, but who live outside of the monastic communities they’re vowed to—vastly outnumber monks. As religious communities age and vocations dwindle, as the pandemic still crawls along, and as many people continue to discover the transformative practice of silence and contemplation, the simplicity of monastic practice feels right for the chaos of our time.
Over the past four decades, a tiny community of Camaldolese monks at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley has attracted hundreds of such oblates from all over the world. To reach the monastery, you drive or walk up, up, up from the flat streets of south Berkeley until you arrive at the top of a hill. There the monastery overlooks the sweep of the Bay Area and its millions of residents. There is no sign outside, no indication that this is a religious community. What looks like any other house in the area offers a place where people can heed Jesus’ advice about prayer—to enter our rooms and close the door, where we can meet God in secret. The monastery and its oblate community have been and remain a refuge for people seeking the balance between solitude and community that monks manage so well.
Camaldolese monks belong to a reformed Benedictine order founded by St. Romuald in the eleventh century, and they have always had both urban and rural monasteries and hermitages. Jaqueline Chew, a Camaldolese oblate, pointed out that the Camaldolese monastery in Rome is near the Colosseum, so monks in formation there live side by side with ordinary Romans and amid the ebb and flow of tourists. But their rural monasteries, closer to the quiet of the natural world, allow the Camaldolese to balance community and solitude in yet another way.
In California, this is epitomized by Incarnation’s location, perched in the hills near acres of regional parks, but still very much in a city. The monastery consists of two conjoined houses, one where the monks live, and another with a spectacular view of Oakland, San Francisco, and the bay. This is where the small community chapel is located and where guests can stay—hospitality to the stranger is part of the Camaldolese charism. Their mother monastery, New Camaldoli, is more isolated; it’s a few hours south of Berkeley on the rugged coastal landscape of Big Sur. Many oblates discover the Camaldolese community on retreats at Big Sur and later visit Incarnation, or, due to the increasing number of wildfires and crumbling roads around Big Sur that can make it inaccessible by car, some oblates choose to be part of a community that’s easier to reach.
The Camaldolese rule of life, followed by both monks and oblates, was passed down from St. Romuald. It is exquisitely simple and, in its entirety, a mere hundred words long.
Sede in cella quasi in paradiso;
proice post tergum de memoria totum mundum,
cautus ad cogitationes, quasi bonus piscator ad pisces.
“Sit in your cell,” Romuald said, “as if in paradise. Cast all memory of the world behind you, cautiously watching your thoughts, as a good fisher watches the fish.” And because, for monks, the Psalms are the key to everything, Romuald added a kind of warning: “In the Psalms there is one way. Do not abandon it.” The Psalms, among the most ancient prayers of the Church, form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Hours followed by Camaldolese monks and oblates. They chant, recite, and practice lectio divina—slow, careful reading—living every day with the Psalms until these prayers are engraved on their hearts.
This kind of kenotic, self-emptying prayer is, of course, easier said than done. For many people, the pandemic has exposed our raw human need for companionship to the point that loneliness, depression, and anxiety became a kind of parallel pandemic. But for some people, the pandemic also exposed spiritual and religious longings and an awareness of the need for solitude that is woven into the history of Catholicism, but rarely acknowledged in the average parish.
Like the Catholic Church itself, a monastery’s foundation is the life of Christ, which balanced the growth of the Christian community and its notion of agape with Jesus’ own frequent calls to solitary prayer and retreat. Today, when the U.S. Church in particular can feel anything but stable or steadying, it makes sense that people would seek out places of spiritual refuge.
Fr. Andrew Colnaghi, the chaplain to the Incarnation oblate community, has lived in the United States for nearly half a century, though he still carries a prominent Italian accent. Soft-spoken and dressed in a tracksuit, at first sight he could be any man of a certain age who lives in Berkeley, where Boomers outnumber almost everyone other than UC Berkeley students. But in the chapel, wearing the Camaldolese habit of sweeping white robes, he and the other monks transform into figures out of time.
Colnaghi grew up near Milan, where he worked in a factory with nine thousand employees. There, where workers were called by number and not by name, he became involved in peace and justice work, which led him to conversations with the superior of a nearby Camaldolese community. That superior advised him not to leave his past as an organizer behind, but to bring it with him into the monastic vocation. After “hours and hours talking,” Colnaghi entered the order in 1979.
When Colnaghi first arrived at Big Sur, he discovered just how isolating it could truly be. “There’s nothing there,” he told me. Whenever a storm or fire shuts down the road and the phone lines, the monastery is completely cut off from the world. Young people who sought out the Camaldolese vocation at Big Sur were “very enthusiastic to change, to form” themselves, but very few of them wound up taking vows, many of them finding the extreme isolation too difficult to cope with. But at the same time, more and more lay people were seeking out the monastery for retreats and beginning to form bonds with the monks. The general chapter of the Camaldolese suggested forming a more accessible, less remote sister community somewhere else in California. They decided on the Bay Area and purchased the buildings that now house Incarnation Monastery from the Holy Cross fathers in 1980. The idea of a life of prayer in an urban context for Camaldolese means, according to Colnaghi, “you don’t have to go to the desert; you can go anywhere.”
The original vision for Incarnation was that it would be a place where monks in formation could live while studying at the Graduate Theological Union and also serve as a guesthouse for visiting scholars. When I interviewed Colnaghi, the guesthouse had just recently re-opened, and a young Jesuit was making a retreat and busily typing on a laptop on the deck. But Camaldolese vocations in the United States are not what they were in the era of Thomas Merton, when monasteries were practically overflowing. (During a visit to Merton’s home monastery of Gethsemani a few years ago, I saw only a couple of men under sixty among the monks.) As vocations slowed, however, lay people who frequented the Big Sur monastery had begun to discern their own idea of a vocation. Among them was a woman who had begun to think of the monks as being like her brothers, an extended family. She knew she couldn’t be a monk—she was married, and a woman—but she and the monks began to consider some other ideas.
The idea of an oblate is very old. Oblates—in Latin, oblatus, meaning someone whose life has been offered—were originally servants, workers, or children vowed by their parents to monasteries. As monastic orders reformed, the role of an oblate became closer to what it is today. Secular oblates are vowed to a specific monastery and promise to follow that order’s rule and keep the hours, but they are not required to live in the monastic community.
Oblates are not necessarily Catholic. The Episcopalian writer Kathleen Norris is an oblate of the Benedictine community in Collegeville, Minnesota, and brought monastic life to a wider audience in her book The Cloister Walk. A growing number of mainline Protestants, along with some Evangelicals who have discovered contemplative prayer and mysticism, have begun to explore life as an oblate. Colnaghi says oblate candidates should “of course be Christian” due to the Camaldolese emphasis on the Psalms and on following the life of Christ, but the monks have also engaged in dialogue with Buddhist monasteries, which outnumber Catholic ones in the Bay Area.
Pamela Ovalle was the first oblate of Incarnation Monastery. In the 1970s, she began making retreats at the Big Sur monastery when they first opened to women, and she noticed “how difficult it was to go to the Hermitage for two weeks and have this wonderful sort of life of prayer and what have you, and then you’d come back to Berkeley and your whole life turns in another direction.” It’s understandable that Ovalle felt such whiplash. She spent her career in the corporate world where she was a risk manager for a bank—a career, she says, that made the contemplative prayer she was drawn to challenging.
Ovalle’s bonds with the monks at Big Sur and later in Berkeley meant that when conversations began about forming an oblature, she was the first person the monks considered. The process, she observes, was “considerably less formal than now,” when oblate candidates must discern for at least a year whether or not to make formal vows to the community. For Ovalle, having a community in Berkeley meant she could have a local community “with whom I could touch base and share the challenges of trying to be in the corporate world and a contemplative at the same time.” Looking back, she says she was naïve when she entered the corporate world and later realized the way corporations treated people was “opposed to any sort of Christian values whatsoever.”
Finding the balance between her career and her vows as an oblate could be especially difficult. Sometimes, she’d read the Psalms and feel “a major disconnect” between their words and her work. At other times, she’d find herself reading the Liturgy of the Hours on her train commute into San Francisco. One of the Camaldolese monks suggested that she take up the practice of meditating with Buddhists, which he thought might help her with centering herself as she prayed—so, for a time, she’d attend the San Francisco Zen Center after work. But it was the Camaldolese monastic community that gave her “a rootedness you don’t find anywhere else.”
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.
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