The peal of the church bell splits the predawn darkness like a summons from God himself.
The hermits of Big Sur rise from their beds, slip on white robes and emerge one by one from their quarters — concrete-block cells heated with propane stoves and adorned with third-hand furniture and framed inscriptions of St. Romuald’s Brief Rule For Camaldolese Monks.
Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
If only it were that easy.
The Catholic monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage have lived a world apart in the inspirational majesty of Big Sur for half a century. They know well the power of prayer and contemplation.
Money management is another matter.
Never did they imagine their most vexing problem would be finding a way to close a $300,000-a-year budget deficit. Or reviving a flagging fruitcake business that has helped support them for decades.
The monks are like countless American families struggling through hard times. They’re working harder but digging into dwindling savings to make ends meet. Their home is paid for, but repairs are on hold indefinitely. The viability of their Thoreau-like existence is in doubt.
“I’ll be honest: I don’t understand finances at all,” said Father Raniero Hoffman, the hermitage’s prior for the last dozen years. “Our whole way of life is beyond what society today would say is practical.”
They came to the mountaintop seeking escape from the distractions of society. They found that some distractions cannot be avoided.
Drive north from Morro Bay on California 1 for 90 minutes. Just before the blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet of Lucia, turn right onto an ear-popping one-lane road that clings to land’s end like a child to his mother’s hemline.
The road ends at the New Camaldoli Hermitage — a church and living quarters on 900 acres of redwood and oak forest overlooking the Pacific. The view is humbling; it seems the Earth’s curvature can be detected on the edges of the horizon.
Equally humbling are the pressures facing all monasteries: an aging population of monks and a paucity of new recruits.
Fifteen men call the hermitage home, down from 25 a decade ago. During that time, no one has completed the multi-year apprenticeship for inclusion into the community.
The monks’ average age is 65. Yet there is always work to be done: cooking, cleaning, managing the gift shop and the handful of austere ocean-view rooms and trailers rented to guests seeking respite from the outside world.
Monks do not retire. Brother Emmanuel, 83 and with two new knees, clears brush driving a skid loader.
Father Zacchaeus Naegele, who was a U.S. Coast Guard cook before breaking off a marriage engagement and becoming a priest, is “head of fruitcakes.”
But the 59-year-old is also the community’s tailor, assistant kitchen master, assistant guest master, shipping manager and “infirmarian” — the person responsible for caring for monks who become ill. His main charge is Father Bernard, who is 82 and afflicted with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
Father Zacchaeus is his brother’s shadow, getting him ready for bed each night and helping him dress in the morning.
Diversions from work, prayer and contemplation are few, although several monks have computers in their cells and Sunday is film night. (Recent thumbs up have gone to the animated comedy “Monsters vs. Aliens” and Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.”)
“This is a very unique way of life, and it takes a very special type of person to embrace it,” said Brother Bede John Healey, 58. “We’ve had plenty of men who have tried out the life, but they haven’t stayed.”
Brother Bede moved here 15 years ago, seeking more isolation and time for reflection than he was able to find at a Kansas monastery.
What he got was a world of worry. Brother Bede was charged with overseeing the hermitage’s $1.3-million annual budget, a demanding job for which he — a clinical psychologist by training — had no expertise.
Four years ago, with the stock market surging, he had a revelation. The hermitage’s finances were not as healthy as they seemed. Paper profits on long-held investments masked the reality that day-to-day expenses were outrunning income and donations.
When one deep-pocketed supporter — a relative of a monk who had been giving $100,000 a year — died, the monastery had to raid its savings to fill the budget hole.
The hermitage property itself has become a money pit. Its water lines, gas pipes and sewage system are buckling with age. The monks share their cells with termites. The motor that rings the chapel’s bell is broken, so calls to prayer are sounded by hand.
“Our founders would be shocked at the costs of keeping this thing going,” Brother Bede said.
Italian monks planted the Camaldoli flag in the United States in 1958 with a large donation from a foundation run by Harry and Erica John, heirs to the Miller Brewing Co. fortune. The monks bought the Big Sur property, a failed dude ranch, and built much of the complex themselves.
Unlike most Benedictine monasteries in the United States, which were founded to attend to the pastoral and educational needs of newly arrived immigrants, the New Camaldoli Hermitage would focus on solitary contemplation in the manner of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, influential author and modern Catholic mystic.
“Solitude is a way to defend the spirit against the murderous din of our materialism,” Merton wrote. “Do everything you can to avoid the noise and the business of men.”
Now, the business of men was kicking at their door.
A consultant was hired to show them a path forward. The monks needed to market themselves to potential donors. They needed to raise room rates, which are treated as donations for tax purposes. Who else would ask $70 a night for such a priceless view?
And they needed to run their fruitcake business like a business, and start promoting it as a brand.
“The Trappists have been good at that,” Father Robert Hale said of the acknowledged heavyweights in the monastery fruitcake business. “They’re driven. Workaholics, really. Our community wants to be more balanced in our lives between work and prayer. They might think we’re lazy.”
The hermitage’s 3-pound cakes cost $38 and resemble a brick. But they taste nothing like the typical dry doorstops that are given time and again before being dispatched to the garbage.
Based on a decades-old recipe from a monk who had been a Navy cook, the hermitage’s brandy-dipped fruitcakes are moist and flavorful.
“I can’t tell you,” Father Zacchaeus, the fruitcake honcho, said when asked how that is achieved. “They’ll kill me.”
But stiff competition from other monasteries and the outsourcing of baking to a company near Monterey eight years ago have cut annual cake sales to about 5,000 a year from 9,000 a decade ago.
“People bought it because it was made by us — all by hand. When they read on the package that it was made at a bakery, a lot of them probably said ‘Let’s go find another monastery where they do make it themselves,”’ said Father Zacchaeus. “We were afraid our equipment was going to fall apart, and we didn’t have the manpower anymore.”
The hermitage bakery exudes a vibe more History Channel than Food Network. The hulking World War II-era former pizza oven makes one wary of lighting a match. Two giant industrial mixers and a scale that uses lead weights belong in a museum. All the bakery can handle now is the occasional batch of Holy Granola, which is sold in the gift shop.
“We need to bring the fruitcakes home,” said Mark Giulieri, a layman who was hired in April as the hermitage’s first director of operations. “But doing that is going to take modernizing the kitchen. We have to stop this death spiral we’re in. Just because we have this belief that we are preordained to be here … nothing is for certain.”
Giulieri’s hiring signals a shift in attitude among the monks, some of whom were slow to embrace the idea that solitary contemplation could — or should — be monetized.
Change is afoot. The hermitage has overhauled its website. It saw a bump in fruitcake sales as a result of bulk e-mails and advertisements it took out in Catholic periodicals and local newspapers. Giulieri is looking for a retail chain to stock cakes next year.
“We had a gig today in Salinas. Went on television to talk about the fruitcakes,” said Father Robert, who has spent 51 of his 73 years at the hermitage. “It really is a superior fruitcake.”
The monks may never become Mad Men, but they’re poised to make their pitch.
“For years people didn’t attend to the financial side of things,” Brother Bede said. “It’s been hard for the monks to face up to that.”
At one point, Brother Bede broached the idea of selling the hermitage property and moving somewhere less isolated and expensive to maintain.
How often does 900 acres of Shangri-La hit the market? The payday would ensure the hermitage’s financial stability for generations.
“It was a visceral reaction. A shudder,” Brother Bede said of the response from his brethren.
“We have men buried here,” he said. “We would lose so much. Not only the beauty of the place but — what’s the business term? — the sweat equity that’s been put into it all these years. It’s our home. Selling is not an option.”
Selling more fruitcakes is.