Like many techies, Brother Eckhart Camden wears a hooded garment to work. But his uniform is not a hoodie, strictly speaking. Instead, Brother Eckhart wears a black tunic and scapular — reflecting his status as probably the only Benedictine monk working at a Silicon Valley software company.
“That’s for the remembrance of death — the reason why the Benedictines wear black,” Brother Eckhart told BuzzFeed News in an interview in the Palo Alto garden where he prays daily. “One of the things that’s to help you keep humble is to remember that you are mortal.”
Brother Eckhart, 56, with an unruly beard and long gray hair, has worked in technology for more than 30 years, though he moved to California’s Bay Area only in 2013, to join a software startup. Until recently, he was known as Chip Camden, and his hair was buzzed short. (A photo that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2013 shows his previous incarnation.) But a series of spiritual experiences in recent years, he says, helped him rediscover his Christian faith and put him on a path that culminated in a ceremony in November, when he took Benedictine vows.
Since ancient times, monks of the Order of Saint Benedict have adhered to a tradition of chastity, asceticism, and prayer. Brother Eckhart’s group, the Community of St. John Cassian, is a small and relatively new Benedictine organization within the Episcopal Church, founded only last year in Berkeley. Unlike other Benedictine communities, it doesn’t have a monastery, though it is hoping to be able to afford one soon. For now, its members live alone, in conventional society, and are expected to support themselves financially.
In a role seemingly befitting a monk, Brother Eckhart oversees quality at his software startup, which is now a division of one of the region’s biggest tech companies. (His employer asked not to be named in this article; in the charitable spirit embraced by Brother Eckhart, we assented.) He spends four hours a day in prayer, including Bible study and meditation, in several sessions starting when he arises at 5 a.m. This practice, he says, has helped him improve his focus and made him calmer at work — useful traits for ensuring that software development be held to a high standard.
“I do see that quality benefits from that centeredness,” Brother Eckhart said. “It’s often about discipline, and awareness, and paying attention to the moment, and not getting too far ahead of yourself.”
At the same time, life in Silicon Valley these days can be full of potential pitfalls for anyone trying to free themselves from material things. Tech companies of all sizes offer catered meals and abundant snacks while showering their employees with perks. Brother Eckhart gave up drinking long before taking his monastic vows (he makes an exception for communion wine), although he once accidentally took a sip of white wine at a company party. “I asked for water and they gave me wine, thinking I was joking,” he said.
But despite the abundant temptations on offer in the current Silicon Valley gold rush, he has been able to maintain his monastic discipline. He gave up his car when he moved to Palo Alto and lives in a one-bedroom apartment with few possessions. His youngest son has a severe mental disability, he said, and he directs a large part of his earnings toward his son’s care.
“The free lunches are great,” Brother Eckhart said. “But as far as the rest of the lifestyle, I try not to be too acquisitive.”
Though he came to the Benedictine order later in life, Chip Camden studied the Bible as a student at Oral Roberts University in the late 1970s and planned to become a minister. He discovered computer programming almost by accident, working a part-time job in the university’s data processing department.
Soon he taught himself programming languages like COBOL and DG Eclipse Assembler, while also studying Hebrew and Greek. His first wife, whom he married while in college, noticed those four languages seemingly melding in his brain.
“One night, my wife woke me up and described for me the things I was saying,” Brother Eckhart recalled. “And I was actually talking in all four at the same time.”
“Programming languages are actually human languages. They’re not machine languages,” he added. “They’re just extremely well specified.”
After that marriage and a second one fell apart, and after many years working as an independent software consultant, Brother Eckhart came back to Christianity. Studying the Bible in college had shown him inconsistencies in scripture and turned him into an atheist, he said. But while listening to Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, on a CD recovered from his estranged second wife, he broke down in tears upon discovering an unexpectedly beautiful passage in the music.
Later, he believed he received a divine message after praying for strength in anticipation of a heart surgery. An eagle he had seen months earlier appeared on a branch before him, seeming to represent strength, and he noticed a biblical passage, Isaiah 40:31, inscribed on plaques on nearby benches. “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength,” it reads. “They will soar on wings like eagles.”
He found the Benedictine community through an Episcopal church in Palo Alto. Adhering to a chaste life, he said, was not hard.
“After my second wife and I split, my therapist recommended that I not start another relationship for 18 months,” Brother Eckhart said. “I decided to give it a try. And I suddenly found such freedom in not having to relate to people that way.”
Benedictine monks are not common in the United States today, even in spiritually diverse Northern California. Brother Brendan E. Williams, the founder and prior of the Community of St. John Cassian, said he knew of just one other Benedictine community in the Bay Area, the Camaldolese monks at Incarnation Monastery in the Berkeley Hills, who are Catholic.
Still, the Bay Area is a stronghold of contemplative tradition, particularly the Buddhist variety. The Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki, who established the San Francisco Zen Center in the early 1960s, inspired countless Westerners to meditate, and mindfulness gurus have since infiltrated corporate offices. In the HBO show Silicon Valley, the CEO of the fictional tech giant Hooli often turns to his spiritual guru for counsel.
“It’s a little trendier to be Buddhist, I think, than it is to be Christian,” Brother Eckhart said. “Perhaps in Western culture we’re a little too close to the seedy underbelly of Christianity’s history.”
Noting the similarities between his tradition and Buddhism, Brother Eckhart said he enjoys talking to a work colleague who is Buddhist.
“We have wonderful discussions about contemplative technique, and the kinds of experiences that we have in trying to find that place to be, or place to non-be, if you will,” he said. “I find that I have more in common with him than I have with many Christians, who aren’t familiar with the contemplative tradition of Christianity.”
In preparation for his vows ceremony in November, Brother Eckhart sent messages to colleagues informing them of his plans, including that he would be wearing a monk’s habit to the office. “They’ve all been very supportive,” he said.
His outfit — all black, down to his high-top Chuck Taylors — follows the precepts outlined by St. Benedict. He wears a traditional medal on a necklace, a black belt, and a hood, for warmth, which “gives me a Gandalf look.”
And then there’s that scraggly beard, which, in today’s tech scene — with executives like Jack Dorsey of Twitter sporting mighty facial growth — doesn’t seem very unusual at all.
“It is kind of trendy, unfortunately,” Brother Eckhart said. “But I quit trimming it about a year and a half ago, and just kind of let it grow. I don’t know why, exactly. I guess I like it.”
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