Meet the Benedictine Monk of Silicon Valley

  • 2016-01-07
  • Buzzfeed

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.