The Saint of Montecito: The Life of Steven Berg

By A.L. Bardach   |   July 22, 2021
Steven Berg served the Santa Barbara community in many ways, including a postal route and as a volunteer at the Transition House

You sensed straight away that he was more than a nice guy; something other than a rail-thin, tall soul in a plaid shirt and jeans, looking to lend a hand. Though Steven Berg, who passed away on May 31, worked hard to convince you that he was just a regular gruff Joe, it was a tough sell.

If you lived in Santa Barbara, you likely met Steven — on his postal routes, serving meals at Transition House, or surfing the outer breaks of local beaches. If you were one of the thousands of annual visitors to the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple in Montecito, you saw him every evening at 6 pm, vespers sitting on the floor in the back of the exquisite Lutah Riggs-designed temple. Once the arati chanting concluded, he perched himself against the rear westward pillar, carved from a 1940s Northwest telephone pole, and sat until closing time.

At Sunday lectures, he was the doorman who welcomed every visitor to the temple.

“Come in,” he would exclaim, quietly laughing, “everything here is free!”

When needed, he was the bouncer to those with the mistaken idea that the bucolic 35-acre grounds were ideal for a concert, a yoga studio, or just the place to tie one on and get lit.

Since 1982, Steven lived in a small apartment on the lower level of the Pavilion on the upper temple grounds. If you happened to peer into his window in the morning, you would have seen him sitting cross-legged, ramrod straight, eyes closed for hours. He passed a portion of every day studying the Bhagavad Gita. For half a century.

Although he declined to take formal vows as a monk (“I’m too independent,” he would protest), he was a monk. Indeed, in the view of some qualified to know, he may well have been a saint.

The facts of his life did not signal such an outcome. Born and raised in San Francisco to an Irish-Norwegian family, Steven attended Santa Barbara City College in 1964 for two years, briefly married, then hightailed it to Hawaii to live on a leaky boat.

His original ambition was to find and surf waves that appeared to touch the heavens. Indeed, he surfed until recently, when cancer sapped his strength, and he could no longer push off his board to stand.

In 1968, he spied a notice in a local Honolulu paper for a talk on Hindu philosophy at the YMCA. The speaker was Swami Vividishananda, a swami in the Ramakrishna Order created by Vivekananda, the revered monk who introduced meditation to the West in 1893.

“I was completely enthralled,” Steven recalled, from minute one.

The swami urged Steven to work in the Vedanta Center in Seattle. Despite some misgivings about foregoing surfing, Steven stayed in Seattle for four years. He also graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in art history and remained an avid student of painting, museums, and all manner and variety of flowers throughout his life. 

Surfing returned to his life in 1974 when he gleefully transferred to the Vedanta Center in Fiji. For the next eight years, he lived at the Fiji ashram and taught at Vivekananda High School. At the same time, he became an accomplished beekeeper for the center, selling the honey to buy books and uniforms for his students.

“I went with the idea of living a surfer life, but I learned the beauty of the work,” he said, then quietly adding with characteristic understatement, “which stayed with me.”

A military coup forced him to leave Fiji and in 1982 he re-settled in Santa Barbara knowing of its jewel-like Vedanta Center on Ladera Lane — and its superb beaches. He also took a job at the Post Office, delivering mail for decades.

“Every inch of the Santa Barbara property, all 35 acres, has been touched by Steven,” says Pravrajika Vrajaprana, the resident scholar (and lilting soprano) of the Montecito center. That would include clearing brush, planting thousands of bulbs and wildflowers, beekeeping, bear chasing, rattlesnake excavating, and planting Matilija poppies all the to the top of Ladera Lane. When each monk, nun, and devotee passed away, she said, “Steven reverently paddled out into the Pacific and carefully laid their ashes with prasad flowers.”

Steven’s first bout with melanoma was in the mid-‘80s, likely from years of Fiji sun. He swatted away each recurring episode, even one that afflicted the top of his head near the brain. He carried on with his schedule of duties, study, and meditation, fully confident in his doctors, Sansum’s Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, and, most of all, the path he had taken.

A year or so ago, he started immunotherapy with initial success but began to decline earlier this year. Through it all, he never complained nor pined for a longer life or asked for another outcome.

“Whatever you do,” he instructed me emphatically in April, “don’t pray for me to get well or to live any longer. Really, I’ve had a good life.”

His oncologist was baffled, telling him, “I wish I could bottle whatever you have, because 99% of my patients say, ‘Why me?’”

“When I moved here, I took a vow. Whenever anyone asked me to do something, I’d say yes. I wouldn’t ask why or what. I’d just say yes.”
— Steven Berg

While working as a postman, Steven would often take the elderly who could no longer drive to the bank or on errands during his lunch hour. His last postal route was in a hard-scrabble neighborhood. Many of the families on his route had a member who was in a gang or a parent who was in jail. Some of the children were achingly lonely or in trouble or barely saw an absentee parent. He would bring them small gifts. And he would sign them up for catalogues and travel brochures so they would receive mail of their own and see the beauty and wonder in a world unknown to them.

For 32 years, he volunteered at Transition House, serving meals then sitting down with those without homes or money, offering care and attention. What made him remarkable was that Steven expected nothing in return. Indeed, he wanted nothing in return — the linchpin of karma yoga for aspirants. Steven, however, evinced no visible effort. 

“We have no doubt that he has attained the goal he sought for so long,” said Vrajaprana, his friend of 32 years, conferring on him the highest achievement for a Vedantin.

His method was seemingly simple:

“When I moved here, I took a vow. Whenever anyone asked me to do something, I’d say yes. I wouldn’t ask why or what. I’d just say yes.” 

Steven is survived by a brother, Kevin Berg. There will be a memorial service and lunch for Steven on July 17, 2021 at the Santa Barbara Vedanta Society on Ladera Lane in Montecito. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1946 Vedanta Place, Hollywood, CA 90068.


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