There’s a chair on the porch of the retreat house at Genesee Abbey in New York. The chair is made of a faux-wicker metal weave supported by a metal “c” shaped base. The result is a chair that has a bit of bounce, and re-creates the feel of a rocking chair. To sit in this chair you’ve got to trust that it’s going to support you. (In some cases that might be more of a leap of faith than others!) There’s no easy way to get into this chair, no armrests to hold on to, you just have to let yourself fall into the curve. Once you’ve made the move and discovered the chair’s embrace you don’t want to get out. It’s from the comfort of this chair that I sat on the porch at Bethlehem House, on a warm, windy, autumn evening and watched the deer in the freshly cut cornfields. The sense of falling into the chair is an apt metaphor for the experience of being on retreat at Genesee.
The Abbey is of place of silence, reflection and prayer. For an extrovert like me to come here on retreat is a bit of a stretch. However like with the chair, if you risk to let go and enter into the quiet, it will catch you and support you well, while you reflect and take time to watch and listen, not for deer, but the for dear One.
Genesee Abbey is a community of Cistercian Monks; contemplative men, living the Rule of St. Benedict in the tradition of Trappists. They support themselves by baking “Monks’ Bread” which is sold locally and on the internet. I have been to more beautiful abbeys than Genesee. St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, MA is an architectural beauty. I’ve been to Abbeys with better retreat accommodations. In Berryville, VA the monk’s welcome you into an almost hotel-like retreat house. Certainly the monks at both Spencer and Berryville are most gracious hosts and when you are among them there is a discernable spirit of peace.
However at Genesee there’s something a little different. There’s a feeling around the place and among the monks. The Abbey is simple, rugged and earthy. It’s probably due to the fact that the monks literally had a hand in building the place; stone by stone! There’s a sense of integrity about the place that is hard to describe. The Abbey Church sets the tone. It is a dark and prayerful building, carefully designed to give the monks their space while putting the guests face to face with them. Everyone is gathered around the one altar where the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist are celebrated. I guess the best way to describe it is “accessible”. The monks are close to you, the Abbey Church is cosy, participation in the liturgy is encouraged and facilitated. The retreat team (Prior Jerome, the gregarious and passionate retreat director and Kathe, the welcoming young woman who manages the retreat house.) work to create the opportunity for guests to fall into the rhythm of monastic life.
I came to know Genesee through a friend. Paul was a fellow Franciscan Friar in my early years of formation. He was young, handsome, and had a great personality. He was also an accomplished soccer player and athlete. Paul also had an yearning for the contemplative side of Franciscan life. Soon enough he realized that his call was to monastic life and after a while entered at Genesee. In many ways Paul is the last person you would picture in a monastery. He likes people, connects well with others and loves to laugh and have fun. And that is what’s kind of freaky. From what I’ve seen of the monasteries, it is not the dour and anti-social the God calls but rather those who love life and whom He calls to love it even more deeply.
The life of a monk it is not easy. They pray at all hours of the day, they work hard at manual labour and they take the time to linger with God and ponder God’s word. That’s the life they have professed. When Paul made his Solemn Vows as a monk at Genesee I was privileged to be invited and gladly attended. The part of the profession liturgy that is still vivid in my mind is when Paul received his cowl (long white robe) It wasn’t just given to him. Rather, Paul had to let himself go and allow himself to be clothed by the Abbot. It was like the metaphor of the chair on the porch. Paul let himself be embraced by monastic life so that he might be free to experience intimacy with God.
Men who have a deep desire for prayer and contemplation in the monastic tradition and are willing to really challenge themselves to grow should visit the good Abbot John and the monks at the Abbey of Genesee.
Check out these two video clips: