Sunrise, Abbey of the Genesee
My island of São Miguel, like the other eight islands that form the Azorean archipelago, is deeply rooted in its spiritual heritage. It is home to convents, chapels, hermitages, Impérios do Divino Espírito Santo, and churches in every town and village.
I grew up, not only with these architectural signs of the holy, but with a living faith practiced in the ordinariness of daily life by those around me. So, it makes sense that I continue to be enthralled by religious sites, and especially convents and monasteries where modern-day monks and nuns still live. Although most convents are no longer functioning on the island that instilled this fascination, it’s a marvel to me that they exist here in North America. That I can find Roman Catholic Monasticism in both Canada and the United States is a modern miracle; especially in this age when many people mistrust and reject Christian institutions and spirituality.
But if you are so inclined to follow your heart’s desire for the intangible, for the spiritual; or even if all you are searching for is a place to rest for awhile, away from your connectivity to social media, and everything that goes with filling your mind and soul with countless unnecessary distractions, you can retreat to a monastery or convent for a few days and disconnect from your everyday life in order to connect with your deepest self.
Every once in a while, I journey to such places in order to find rest of body, a renewal of the soul, and an injection of joy and peace which hopefully sustains me until, depleted once again by daily living, I return to the sanctuary of a monastery.
Recently I was in just such a place, in upstate New York, near the Genesee River Valley: The Abbey of the Genesee, where American Cistercian Monks continue to live out an ancient way of life going back centuries to its European roots.
I stayed at the abbey’s Bethlehem Retreat House, sharing the space with fellow retreatants in total silence, including meal times. The house is surrounded by wide open spaces for long walks in nature. And the Abbey, where everyone is welcome to join the monks in their daily cycle of prayer, is only a short distance away.
On this retreat, I couldn’t get up for Vigils (Night Office) at 3:30 am but I made it for Lauds (the prayer at dawn) at 6:30 am, still dark outside on these still cold March days, followed by Mass at 7:00 am, Sext (Noon) prayer, Vespers (Sunset) at 5:30 pm, and ending with Compline (Evening prayer), at 7:30 pm. It’s an ancient, daily rhythm that brings monks into their Choir to chant the Psalms of the Divine Office. It defies human understanding to live like this, and to what purpose, we will ask. But there is no logical answer except to say that, against all reason, there are men and women who still dedicate their lives to the unknown mystery of existence through prayer and silence, not as a rejection of the world, but as a reminder that the sacred and the unspoken has value beyond human logic.
Despite their heavy daily prayer schedule, the monks also work. Monks’ Bread is famous throughout the region and this is how the Genesee monks mostly earn their living. Monks live in community and take care of each other. It’s not all high-spiritual lofty stuff but the concreteness of ordinary life. I witnessed a monk leaving choir during the chanting of Lauds only to return a few minutes later with the pair of glasses the old frail monk with trembling hands in a wheelchair next to him had forgotten. This, for me, was the sign of authentic incarnational love and kindness (charity) that gives human meaning to their understanding of the Gospel mandate to “love one another.”
After several days of living surrounded by chant and walks in nature, all my life’s worries and anxieties seemed to quieten down. I say “seemed” because they are still there, only resting for a while, until later, when I return home, and as soon as I get off the train and face the overcrowded platforms of Union Station in Toronto, I start to wake up to the realities of life in a big city again.
But the monks, as much as they are devoted to their monastic life, would argue that you don’t have to live in a monastery to find peace, calm, joy. These virtues are just as accessible and present in the world, in the busyness and clutter of life. It’s ultimately, a matter of the heart, and it’s possible to find solitude and peace everywhere we are.
However, I am still grateful for the existence of these special places where I can go every-once-in-a-while for a high dosage of spiritual life.
The Abbey of the Genesee
Stained glass doors leading to the Abbey church and stained glass windows
The Monks’ cemetery
Bethlehem Retreat House
The barn and a bench to sit under the tree and contemplate nature
The barn and path leading to Mary
The barn with the goats Adelaide and Bernice (Addie and Bernie) posing on the side
A hint of Spring colour but the pond behind the tree is still frozen
A forest nearby still in Winter nakedness
Our Lady of the Genesee