For the monks of Big Sur, the bonds of brotherhood grow after Highway 1 closure


Life for the monks at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur is by definition an exercise in isolation, but recent months forced that isolation to new levels. In February the monastery was effectively cut off from its normal stream of visitors and guests after winter rain storms dubbed "atmospheric rivers" pounded the California coastline, damaging Highway 1 and nearby access roads. Several monks and staff decided to ride out the isolation, enduring multiple health crises and two deaths as they persisted in their devoted, austere lifestyles in this remote mountain community. After six months, the Hermitage began accepting guests again this month.

Brother Timothy Jolley looks toward the New Camaldoli monastery from the "ranch" house where guests and workers normally stay on the Hermitage, which has been isolated by storm-damaged roads on Highway 1 since February.  He says: "Life around here has been rather unsettled since this weather drama set in. We've lost phones for the longest time, Internet was spotty and propane got more scarce. We are feeling the loss of the income and I have recognized just how important faith is and how sustaining. I have found that the absence of guests and being cut off from regular flow through the bookstore [provide] opportunity to spend more time alone in my cell with God. I've worked in my little garden, learning patience from the plants I've put in, watching the birds and squirrels and looking at our remarkable sky, both day and night. Because no one is around, the stillness has its own voice, and I listen."

Father Isaiah Teichert, who has lived at the Hermitage since 1978: "[The isolation] is a chance to go deeper into our contemplation and prayer. I see it as an opportunity. The immediate worry is propane and fuel, and in the longer haul how soon will we be able to connect with our guests and get back to our ordinary life given the roads. But we've been through hard times before and the Lord always seems to get us back on our feet one way or another. If I were God I'd want to keep this place going."

Dust kicks up on a stretch of damaged road on Highway 1 in Big Sur near Paul's Slide.

The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge north of Big Sur is seen with a buckling section. The bridge was condemned in February and demolished in March, bifurcating many communities along Highway 1. Work crews have been working tirelessly to replace it in the coming months.

The monks chant in the rotunda of their monastery in Big Sur. On March 5, one of the eldest monks, Brother Emmanuel Wasinger, passed away from heart attack complications after being airlifted by helicopter. He was a fixture at the Hermitage and had lived there since 1965.

Rich Veum tends a beehive named "Eve" on the monastery grounds. The bookstore and business manager says "the monks help remind me to stay in the present and not worry so much about the future. Right now, I could get caught up in the fact that we're down $200 or $300,000 this month, but I try to stay positive. You know there's that saying, in the end everything will be alright, and if things aren't alright then it's not the end."

Prior Cyprian Consiglio looks out the window of the dining hall near a painting of St. Romuald while composing a homily for evening service. Cyprian oversees all aspects of life at the monastery. "The real problems have been lack of propane for cooking, heat and hot water, and lack of diesel for our generator. Income loss has also been a worry." He added that he's been surprised "how the brothers have adapted, and how this situation has allowed us to get back to basics: more silence, more solitude, greater simplicity."

Local firefighters and volunteers receive a food drop from a helicopter at the Post Ranch Inn, about 25 miles up Highway 1 from New Camaldoli Hermitage. Two of the monks traveled on the damaged roads to Big Sur's post office to receive food supplies delivered by helicopter. 

Brother Benedict Dell'osa walks the Hermitage grounds back to his monastic cell after evening prayers.

Father Isaiah Teichert, who has lived at New Camaldoli since 1978, sits next to a statue of the Virgin Mary inside the hollow stump of the "Womb Tree," a hollow oak tree that nearly burned down in a fire several years ago. Regarding their current plight, he said, "I miss that rhythm, and their input. They sort of keep to their side of the wall and we keep to our side but very often they want to talk and they're curious, we have them in for lunch on Sunday. On the other hand it's a chance to go deeper into our contemplation and prayer. I see it as an opportunity."

Brother Benedict Dell'osa, who cooks once a week for the other monks, looks for boxes of food marked for the Hermitage after helicopters delivered supplies.

The monks pray at a Vespers evening service. 

Vickie Conte helps with the dishes after lunch. After 2 1/2 years as the beekeeper for the Hermitage, she recently moved into the canyon a short hike from the cloister and is a neighbor and friend of the Hermitage. "It has been a very challenging time ... the roads were falling apart. No phones. There was talk we might have to evacuate. We have been conserving fuel, and on top of all that our dear Brother Emmanuel broke his hip and had to be air-lifted out. He died a week later. This was a very tough time. I know the monks have also said they miss having visitors since part of their vocation is to show hospitality, so this is missing from their lives. Yet they seem to be coming together, reevaluating and reflecting ... when you are surrounded by incredible beauty and silence there is a connection back to the land." She adds, "Everyone has pulled together and taken on different responsibilities for the good of the entire community." 

Father Thomas Matus reads a magazine in the Hermitage library. Born in Hollywood in 1940, Thomas is a former student of Kriya yoga and has been at the Hermitage since 1962. "It is true that in these weeks of relative isolation we have had the opportunity to appreciate deeply both the bonds of brotherhood in community and the greater simplicity of our prayer and work; this simplification has favored the contemplative experience in our moments of solitude." 

Brother Michael Harrington poses for a portrait in his robes after evening prayers. He moved to New Calmodoli in 1989 following a divorce. Before becoming a monk, he was an engineer at defense contractor Pratt & Whitney. "Growing up I was told if I'm not a manager then I'm a failure. I'm an introvert so all the hobnobbing of business didn't fit for me, in the sense of who God made you, you know. An introvert draws energy from within so being a monk is a perfect match," he said.

An overview of the New Camaldoli Hermitage and monastic cells above the Pacific Ocean from one of the nearby trails. 

Elijah Hurwitz is an independent documentary photographer based in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.