Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Big Sur Monks

The Big Sur Monks

I first got to know the Benedictine monks of the New Camaldoli Monastery on the Big Sur Coast 10 years ago when a small group of coast activists came together to challenge the US military.  At our first meeting their clean long white robes stood in sharp contrast to the Big Sur aging hippies (like myself!) But the monks emerged as leaders in our cause.

The US Navy had, without notice, started flying bomber jets on daily test runs, very low and loud, from Ft. Hunter Ligget, neighbor of the monastery, along the coast and out over the ocean.  Not only were these flights a shocking intrusion into the peace of the monks and their many retreatants, but it was crazy to see one federal agency, the Navy, wrecking havoc on the long hard work of another federal program, US Fish and Wildlife’s decades long patient program, in that same Big Sur wilderness, to bring the California condor back from the brink of extinction.

Talk about David and Goliath.  But with much effort we were ultimately successful in stopping the Navy’s flights, with the help of our Member of Congress Sam Farr.  I am sure that those white robed monks at the rallies and many meetings had a huge influence. 

Later I met the monks again at another meeting.  (These monks don’t just spend all day in contemplation, even though their great website is <>.  Like all religious leaders, they have to go to a lot of meetings.) This one was the Four Winds Council, a fantastic cooperative effort of four spiritually based groups who all offer hospitality in the Ventana Wilderness: The Esalen Institute, the Monastery, the Essalen Nation of native people (which offers guided trips into the wilderness), and Tassajara Zen Center.  They draw from different traditions, but share times of spiritual renewal (they had just been in a sweat lodge together) and strategies (that day it was plumbing problems.) 

You might expect me to say that my favorite times with the monks were the more “spiritual” ones.   I do love worshipping with them at their noon sung mass in the splendid chapel.  (I did that recently on a business trip down the coast, planned the trip with a stop there.)  Some years ago I spent a restorative three days in their remote hermitage in solitary silent retreat.  My spirit is fed just visiting the great bookstore and taking in the view 1300 feet above the rugged coast.

But I am forever grateful that our coast is silent and the condor babies are surviving.  That’s a deeply spiritual gift from the monks.

(On our Blue Theology youth mission trips and adult retreats we don’t get as far south as the Monastery, but we do spend time at closer holy spots – Carmel Mission, the UCC Community Church labyrinth, and of course our own Christian Church sanctuary in Pacific Grove.  Oh yeah, and another sanctuary, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  Church and state sometimes mix very nicely, as when monks challenge bombers and governments name protected areas “sanctuaries.”)

(We are booking groups for 2016.  Check out

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