If you asked a dozen people to name a great getaway, it’s a good bet “monastery” would not be one of the answers. Too bad, since Finger Lakes monasteries are the ultimate reprieves from modern life, the perfect destination if you’re imagining a different kind of getaway where tranquil surroundings and simple pleasures are the attractions.
Two monasteries in the area, both home to a community of Benedictine monks, offer overnight accommodations to people of all faiths or no faith, though they’re also ideal spots to visit for a day. While these are religious communities, uninvited proselytizing of visitors is considered inhospitable, a violation of St. Benedict’s instruction to “welcome the stranger.”
Hospitality, as practiced by Benedict of Nursia for whom the Benedictine Order is named, dates to the sixth century. Toward the end of his life the venerable Benedict wrote a collection of instructions called The Rule of St. Benedict describing how monks, and later, nuns, should live together in a community dedicated to prayer, work, study and perpetual welcoming.
“Beautiful Valley” – Abbey of the Genesee
Brother Anthony Weber, one of 30 Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee, described the monastery as “… an oasis for people caught up in the desert of contemporary life: endless information, endless consumption, endless anxiety.” Located on more than 2,000 acres in Piffard, a small hamlet near SUNY Geneseo, this Trappist Benedictine community was founded in 1951. Forest, ravines, rolling hills and a meandering creek take up 1,200 acres, while fields comprise another 1,200, helping maintain the Abbey’s rural solitude. Visitors are welcome to use the many trails on the property for walking and hiking. Spectacular views of the Genesee Valley at some of the higher elevations add to the sense of quietude that envelops guests.
Monk’s Bread, a brand widely distributed in supermarkets and grocery stores across Western and Central New York, is baked in the abbey’s bakery, its signature product. It is also the single greatest source of financial support for the monastery’s operations. Second greatest are the abbey’s guest services. Three residences, known as retreat houses, are maintained for overnight accommodations of individuals, couples or groups. The different houses, known as Bethlehem, Bethany and Nazareth, all provide comfortably furnished, private bedrooms with shared baths.
Two of the residences, Bethany and Nazareth, feature fully equipped kitchens with basic food supplies, and are designed for visitors who want to set their own schedule of meals and activities. Bethlehem is for guests interested in a slightly more structured visit. Twice a day, visitors come together for meals and are asked to observe silence while eating, mirroring the practice of the monks. Silence is also requested inside the residence, though a Speaking Room on the first floor is always available. Though keeping silence may sound daunting, Brother Anthony assured me most people quickly embrace the practice.
A Hilltop Sanctuary – Mount Saviour
Established in 1951, the current Mount Saviour community is home to 11 monks. Because of its location in the beautiful, verdant hills between Elmira and Corning, visitors are treated to dramatic views of hillsides and meadows, rich landscapes of color and shadow that change hour by hour depending on the slant of the sun or the thickness of the clouds.
Mount Saviour owns slightly more than 1,000 acres of land. Approximately 300 acres are used for raising sheep. The sale of lambs, yarn and pelt products are a source of income for the community. In mid-April, visitors are treated to hillside pastures filled with capering lambs. A highlight of late spring is the annual shearing, an event that draws a large audience of local residents.
Mount Saviour also earns a modest income from guests interested in staying for at least two nights or longer. The largest of the visitor accommodations is St. Joseph’s Men’s Guest House. It has 15 small private rooms with shared baths, common areas and a fully equipped kitchen, though male guests are invited to eat with the monks in the monastery.
St. Gertrude’s Guest House for women and couples sits on a hilltop pinnacle and commands amazing views. It offers two double rooms and three single-bed rooms. Meals for women guests are served at this residence.
St. Peter’s Farm House, the West Casa and East Casa are located close to the chapel and monastery. In addition to furnished sleeping quarters, these residences are equipped with private kitchens. They are available to men, women and married couples who want a more private stay. Guests may bring and prepare their own food if they wish.
Everyone is welcome to attend any of the seven daily services held in the monastery’s chapel, which is worth a visit regardless. The octagon sanctuary of stone and wood, surrounded by high windows, is suffused with natural light, its central altar beneath a soaring, vaulted ceiling. A superb 15th century triptych from the Flemish School provides the backdrop for a second shrine known as The Altar of the Blessed Sacrament. In the quiet darkness of the chapel’s crypt, a 14th century statue, Our Lady Queen of Peace from the French School, stands on a low, columned pedestal. Dancing flames from dozens of votive candles create intricate patterns of pulsing light against her carved figure.
Monasteries exude a palpable calm, still havens surrounded; yet untouched, by the hurly-burly of contemporary life. Some might say it’s the “otherworldliness” of the monks that makes for this serene ambience, but I suspect the power of a monastery resides in the sense that it’s a place where ancient truths are revealed, and important questions resolved. Brother Cronen of Mount Saviour told me, “At some time, everyone tries to understand the meaning of life. Here, enveloped by nature and hushed routines, it dawns on you that the ordinary is quite extraordinary. This is where the meaning – that indeed, this is what life is all about – is found.”
by Jan Bridgeford-Smith