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The Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York - A Trappist Monastery

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Background

I had the privilege this week of visiting the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York with a group of Mercy Associates, an organization to which I have belonged for 17 years, and which aids us in learning more about our faith in order to practice it more fully.

Introduction

I arranged for our visit by speaking by phone to Brother Anthony, a Trappist monk at the Abbey.  We wanted to come for Mass on a Saturday or Sunday, but he discouraged it because members of the local community attend Mass on weekends as well as family members of the monks, and so space is limited in the chapel which has been renovated recently.  We were anxious to see the renovations as we visited the Abbey as a group about ten years ago.

Brother Anthony suggested that we come on a week day so that we could attend Vesper services at 4:30 p.m.  We also wanted to have a monk speak to us, and Brother Anthony agreed to arrange a talk at 3:30 p.m. on that same day.

                                                           

Trappist Monk at Prayer

                                                                 Trappist Monk at Prayer                                                                                                                                             Wikimedia

The Bakery and Book Shop

There were ten of us in our group and we arrived early so that we might walk around the beautiful grounds and visit the store and book shop.  The main occupation of the Monks is the bakery where Monks Bread of several kinds is made.  In addition to white bread, they offer raisin cinnamon (my favorite), apple spice, maple cinnamon, sunflower with rolled oats, whole wheat, rye, and multigrain breads.  I believe Brother Anthony told us that the monks bake 40,000 loaves of bread each week.  They also sell jellies and peanut butter made by an order of nuns.  The Abbey also houses the book shop which contains the latest books by spiritual writers to browse or to buy.

The grounds are meticulously kept as are the rooms and chapel in the monastery which are available to visitors.  It turned out that Brother Anthony spoke to us at 3:30 p.m. and gave us a brief history of the Trappist way of life.

The Trappist Monks

A Trappist monk is a member of the Order of the Reformed Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.).  It was founded in France in 1662 as a community practicing extreme austerity of diet, penitential exercises, and absolute silence.  By the late 20th century, there were abbeys worldwide, including several in England, Scotland, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa.  Pope Leo XIII united the three existing Trappist congregations as the independent Reformed Cistercians of the Strict Observance, but without the rigid regulations of the early Trappists.

                                                           

Baking Bread

                                                            Baking Bread - Wikimedia

History of the Abbey of the Genesee

The Abbey of the Genesee was founded in 1951 as an offshoot of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky.  The well-known spiritual writer, Thomas Merton was a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  There are at the present time 25 monks at the Abbey of the Genesee, the lowest number ever.  Initially, the monks supported themselves by farming on the 2400 acres of land they own in Piffard.  They grew summer and winter wheat and a variety of vegetables, but eventually the manual work was much too heavy for the amount of profit that resulted from farming.  The monks were having some success with their baked bread that was greatly in demand by the public.  The decision was made to make the bakery their chief means of support, and they leased the land to neighboring farmers who had the machinery and tools to make a success of their use of the acres.  The bakery has proved to be a successful venture, providing a livelihood for the monks.

The Day of Prayer of the Monks

Brother Anthony explained that, contrary to public opinion, the monks do not make a vow of silence.  However, they only speak to one another out of necessity.  The monks go to bed at 7 p.m.  Their day then begins at 2:30 a.m. when they arise and come together for morning prayer which is called Lauds.  They then have a light breakfast and spend some time privately at Lectio Divina, a time of spiritual reading, meditation, and prayer.  The Abbey has a library for the monks consisting of 40,000 volumes from which they can choose for their spiritual reading.

                                       

Thomas Merton

                                              Trappist Monk Thomas Merton - Wikimedia

The Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours consists of seven specified times of prayer:  Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  The monks come together during these times for chanting the psalms, and recitation of prayer.  Between the hours, they spend their time working.  At the Abbey of the Genesee, as stated, their main form of work is the bakery, which begins its work at 2:30 a.m.  Lay workers are hired to help the monks with the numerous forms of labor entailed in the bakery.

The Monk’s Time of Discernment

The first five years of a monk’s life is a time of discernment and formation, when he may feel free to leave if he decides that this is not a permanent way of life for him.  After five years, the other monks vote on whether they believe the candidate should stay.  The monk is still allowed to leave at that point even though the other monks have voted him in.  If he chooses to make his vows, he will be a monk for his entire life.  Brother Anthony revealed that he came to the Abbey when he was 18 years old and has now been a monk for 60 years.  He has a wonderful sense of humor and does not look his age.

Henry Nouwen

In 1974, Henry Nouwen, a priest and spiritual writer, had the extraordinary privilege of being allowed to live at the Abbey for seven months because he was a friend of the Abbot at the time, Father John Eudes Bamberger.  Henry Nouwen published the diary he kept while at the Abbey under the title of “The Genesee Diary.”  It is a popular spiritual book among lay people and is also given to prospective monks as an insight into Trappist spirituality and the contemplative life.

                                                        

Henry Nouwen

                                                            Henry Nouwen - Wikimedia

Retreats for Lay Persons

Lay persons are able to schedule a private retreat at the Abbey, for a weekend, a week, or a time of your own choosing.  The fee is voluntary, depending on your financial ability.  Three meals are provided each day, and guests are invited to chapel prayers recited by the monks.

Our day at the Abbey of the Genesee was a highly edifying experience for me.  I would like to make a retreat there within the next few months, to rekindle the spark that was begun with our day trip to this awesome monastery.  I believe it has the power to change one’s entire life style after viewing the happy, holy countenances of the monks at prayer.

[1]

 

The Genesee Diary: Report From a Trappist Monastery
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(price as of Jun 9, 2016)
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Bibliography

  1. "Trappist Religious Order." Encyclopedia Britannica . 9/06/2016. 9/06/2016 <Web >

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