Justin Sinclair, a 24-year-old musician from L.A., is asking me a question that quickly turns rhetorical: “You can read as many Instagram motivational quotes about ‘being present’ as you want, but do you ever actually stop scrolling past them and think about what they mean?”
To find his “presence” during a bout of depression not long ago, Sinclair checked himself into a remote facility perched high above the Pacific Ocean. It had stunning views, vegetarian home cooking and ran AA groups once a week. But it wasn’t a fancy rehab populated by celebrities; it was a monastery, and it didn’t cost Sinclair a cent.
The New Camaldoli Hermitage is nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains on a famous stretch of road between L.A. and San Francisco. It was founded in 1958 by two Italian monks, who had spent years searching for a location that perfectly combined solitude and natural beauty. Today, a dozen monks live and work at the hermitage, which offers a two-week-long program for men, particularly young ones like Sinclair, who are struggling with addiction, mental health issues and/or simply trying to find a way to cope with modern life.
Officially, the program is called Ora et Labora (Latin for “prayer and work”). Participants work half a day Monday through Friday, with the other half dedicated to study and personal prayer. The candidates are required to see a monk during their time on the premises, who acts as a spiritual director, and attendance at morning vigils is encouraged. The retreat is free as long as participants agree to follow the life of a monk during their stay.
“I’d tried different meds but nothing seemed to work, and I was getting desperate,” says Sinclair. He heard about the hermitage from a friend. At more than 800 acres of wilderness and 1,300 feet above the Pacific, it sounded intriguing. “Medication can help keep things under control, but our psychological problems are deeper than medication can reach. They’re caused by lifestyles that don’t match human evolution; technology has moved us into lifestyles that human evolvement can’t keep up with.”
Prior to entering the monastery’s program, Sinclair had been feeling depressed, and while he says he hasn’t been close to feeling suicidal for about four years, he’d begun to feel “a little bit in that zone.”
“I was foggy,” he explains. “I definitely wasn’t rock bottom, but I couldn’t see what mattered, or what was good. There’s this pseudo pressure we all feel in the social media culture to be and do so much. We have to keep up the expectations of our social culture. When we’re on the internet, there’s a false sense of what’s real. That drives my mind toward this state of overwhelmedness of facing life. I see other people accomplishing and doing things, and I wonder if I’m achieving enough and if I’m worthy of life and love. That draws me down a hole.”
“The guys we attract here are looking for some kind of solace,” says Father Cyprian, the hermitage’s prior. “They’re men looking for an alternative and something transformative. We’ve had more young guys coming for this course, and although they don’t choose to stay on permanently, they often return. The whole monastic ethos and way of life has a way of seeping into the bones and can teach guys contemplative skills to take out into the world.”
In addition to God, Father Cyprian has data on his side. A 2017 research paper funded by the National Institutes of Health found religious participation is linked to lower suicide rates in the U.S, and a similar paper published by the Mayo Clinic summarized, “Religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression and suicide.”
At New Camaldoli, Father Cyprian is keen to show visitors myriad spiritual texts, rather than insisting that everyone stick with Catholic scriptures. As such, lodgers are given a reading list that contains stuff like the ancient Sanskrit texts Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. Most of all, though, there’s an emphasis on fun. “They’re the kinda guys who enjoy life,” Sinclair says of the monks. “They laugh easily. They cook with gusto. They have hobbies. The thing I remember most is just how playful and lighthearted my time there was. I went for runs with Father Cyprian, did yoga classes and played music. There was just a great sense of community. I lived more in two weeks with a bunch of monks than I’ve lived all year in L.A.”
“The monks here are more liberal and emotionally expressive,” adds David Johnston, a Londoner in his late 40s who had toured a number of monasteries across Europe before settling on New Camaldoli. “Everywhere else was dogmatic.”
Johnston found the hermitage so fulfilling that he ended up staying for nearly three years, only leaving because he wanted to have children. “Coming here was such a healing thing for me,” he says. “I was in the film industry, getting lost, and after years of AA and NA, I came here and plugged into the hermitage’s ways. It brought me back to life.”
Since leaving in 2005, Johnston has returned numerous times, most recently visiting with his two daughters. “I was so attracted to this way of life. I loved the idea of solitude, a private journey and a love affair with the mystery of things.”
That said, although the hermitage is laid back, there’s still a strict structure. Prayers and meditation begin at 5:30 a.m. sharp, and silence is observed the majority of the time. A bell breaks the quiet to signal meals and morning prayers. And, of course, there’s no phone or internet.
“The belief that freedom is a lack of structure is faulty,” says Sinclair. “I’d gone through a very difficult few months before I arrived at the hermitage, and I was trapped in this crazy fast-paced life. But when I was given a structure, I was given the time to spend my free moments doing things I actually valued, like writing music, playing the guitar and reading books. Living within this sort of structured environment actually allows for a lot of freedom. Because here’s the thing about monks: They decide what matters most to them and live according to those central values. I need that kind of structure. That was a real awakening moment for me.”
Sixty-eight-year-old Father Zacc has spent 29 years at the hermitage. He arrived, however, by accident. “I was working for the Coast Guard, and I was headed to a mission on the other side of the mountain,” he recalls. “I passed here and thought, I’ll just stop by. But I started talking to the person working in our bookstore, and it all clicked into place. I was so enthralled with everything. I was going through a hard time — I was struggling with an alcohol addiction, and everything started to make sense here.”
Due to popular demand, Father Zacc recently restarted the hermitage’s “Fire on the Mountain” group, a weekly AA meeting that’s open to the public. He’s also responsible for the mail, on-site tailoring, confession and the monastery’s famous “Holy Granola.” In his down time, one of his favorite activities is to watch movies in the refectory, where old, buttery, leather chairs with big armrests sit in front of a TV. “We don’t have any signal, but we do watch films,” he explains. “We watch normal things, too, not just documentaries about saints. Last week we showed Green Book. My favorite, though, is Bohemian Rhapsody. I watched all the extra footage on Netflix.”
Such informality and normalcy is why Sinclair still can’t shake the hermitage. “The monks do things in balance,” he says. “They’re not saying ‘no’ to the entire world, or trying to preach to people or forcing their religion on anyone. They’re just trying to live full lives.”
“It’s funny,” Sinclair continues. “So often people think, How can you say no to all these things? Or live without this and that? But when Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg wear the same T-shirt everyday because they don’t want to be bothered with such decisions, the same people say, ‘Wow, that’s so smart! They can focus on other stuff because they just wear the one T-shirt.’ Yet that’s exactly what the monks do with their entire life. They don’t focus on the other stuff; it just doesn’t matter to them.”
All the while, they keep their minds as open as they do free. Or as Father Cyprian puts it, “It’s just about having the vocabulary to be inclusive, rather than alienating people who don’t have experience of religion or monasticism. We’re more open-minded than people imagine.”