In the fast paced modern world you can experience plenty of noise and stress. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming. Many look for solitude and quiet. The Retreat House at Abbey of the Genesee offers just that for those who want it.
Nestled in the rolling hills of Piffard, the Abbey of the Genesee is the sanctuary of the Trappist Monks. Many may know of them as the producers of Monks Bread. The retreat houses, of which there are three, are located just a few hundred yards away from the main abbey. The houses, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Bethany are spread out over the land, far enough away from each other to be a small sanctuary unto themselves. All three houses are under the direction of Mike Sauter, retreat house manager at the Abbey of the Genesee. Sauter has been a Catholic Campus Minister at SUNY Geneseo for 16 years.
Guests are welcome to come as a group or as individuals. The living arrangements are just as the monks down the road. The retreatants live in silence. Communal rooms are silent and meals are taken in silence. All this is done for the retreatant to focus and find the peace they desire. To let the stress of the modern world melt away. To become closer to god.
Being with a group of people in silence can be off putting for some people, but they soon come to recognize that even though they are quiet, every person in the group is seeking the same thing. Sauter says the goal of a retreat in a trappist tradition is to take all the resentment, nervousness, anger and anxiety you have and use the prayer, the rhythm of the Trappist tradition to help dissipate and come to terms with it.
All the buildings were already standing on the land when the monks moved to New York from Kentucky.
Possibly built as canal houses for the Genesee River that runs behind it, the houses were on the land when it was donated to the monks in the 1950s. An addition was constructed onto Bethlehem House to contain a chapel. This chapel is still there and is open for retreatants whenever they want a moment of quiet prayer for themselves. "For better or worse this does not feel like a hotel. This house has roots and a personality," said Sauter.
While the conditions may sound like you're being transported back to the 19th century, there are modern conveniences and a special room is set aside for conversation. Putting your smart phone away isn't required, but it is encouraged. There is cell phone service around the retreat houses, but guests are asked to go outside if they want to make a call. That way the call doesn't disturb the others living there.
"In an age that is addicted to screens as a counterpoint to screens, let's give people living things to engage with," said Sauter. Retreatants don't have to look further than 100 yards for this engagement. A red clapboard barn stands behind Bethlehem house. A chicken coop and Nigerian dwarf goats are kept there. Chicken eggs are served in the refectory during meals, when available, and there are plans to use the goat milk to make yogurt.
A small garden was tended to last year. This year, pigs will eat the old plants in the garden, fertilize the ground and till the soil with their hooves. All this readies the ground for planting the following season.
Walking the grounds, one does feel separated from the modern world. A path connects the retreat houses to the main abbey. Walking the winding path is another form of solitude. "You are embracing yourself in a rhythm, the silence, and the life of the monk's tradition. That's paramount." says Sauter. As you walk, all you hear is the ground beneath your feet and maybe a bird or two.
At Nazareth House, a wooden bench sits atop a small hill just underneath a tree. About the size of a love seat, the bench provides a place to sit, think or pray. Sitting there, one can view the rolling hills falling away towards the Genesee River that lies at the edge of the abbey's property. No noise, no honking cars, no ringing cell phones, just quiet. The peacefulness of it all brings you to your center and closer to God, what Sauter describes as an "atmosphere of a peaceful vibration."
Guests can find their solitude in other ways besides barns and hikes. There are plenty of rooms in each house. Even your bedroom is a place to find your spiritual center.
A small library at the front of Bethlehem House contains several books lining shelves on either side of the fireplace. Single chairs rest along the walls allowing those who choose to use the room as sense of solitude even though the room itself is communal.
"The people who clue into this place, there's wild community here. Your not going to feel lonely here, but you will embrace solitude," said Sauter.
Guests are not required to attend meetings or group prayer. While it is encouraged, the staff recognizes that the silence and solitude of each guest is what is needed. Sauter explained the experience as the "daily grind of clock time is kept in the walls of this place. You are living a different time stream."
To live differently. That is what the Retreat Houses at the Abbey of the Genesee want you to experience. Allow the silence and solitude to bring inner peace to you. Then bring that peace back to the modern world and spread it to your community.