Twenty-eight Trappist monks, ages 32 to 89, practice the cloistered monastic life of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y. There, the men commit themselves to a contemplative life of solitude, prayer and work.
“It’s an ideal setting to really grow as a human being and to heal the wounds that everyone carries,” said Father Isaac Slater, the abbot or “father of the community,” adding that it’s a “kind of freedom that is really quite remarkable.”
Founded in 1951, the Abbey of the Genesee is the “daughter house” of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, founded 100 years earlier that marked the beginning of OCSO in the U.S.
Brother Anthony of the abbey said that Trappist monks’ “Strict Observance” is that of the Rule of St. Benedict; the rule has three pillars that represent dedication to prayer, spiritual reading and work.
The monks pray seven times each day, Brother Anthony said, beginning at 2:30 a.m. when they wake, and ending with a final prayer at 7 p.m.
“It’s a deeply therapeutic context,” Slater said. “You have space, time, silence, solitude, mutual respect and kindness.”
In comparison to what can be a “noisy and rushed” atmosphere of church masses, Slater said that the monastery’s liturgical readings offer a “deep silence, mindfulness and restfulness” that lends itself to seeing the liturgy “on a different wavelength.”
Every monastery that follows the Rule of St. Benedict has its own industry; the Genesee Abbey is known for its Monks’ Bread and baked goods.
“Monks support themselves by their own hands,” Slater said, adding that they are not dependent on donors.
To keep itself in check with the effects of increasing in scale, Brother Anthony said, the monks bake only three days in the week and they set a limit for how much bread to bake.
“The main value of manual labor in monastic life is a spiritual practice,” Slater said.
Trappist monks make vows both upon entrance into and during their time at the monastery: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion and stability, all of which aid them in their “search for God as we grow in knowledge and love of him,” Brother Anthony said.
The monastic practices, Slater said, are organized toward keeping each monk tuned into his experience with God and “cultivating the seed of that experience.”
In upholding the vow of poverty, monks give up all possessions.
“As a result, we live very simply,” Brother Anthony said.
Through chastity, the monks maintain a celibate lifestyle for the rest of their lives.
Obedience, Brother Anthony said, is following both the Rule of St. Benedict and that of the abbot.
Conversion is a vow in which “we keep on realizing that we’re never fully converted,” Brother Anthony said, adding that “The longer you live life, the longer you see there’s more work to be done.”
Finally, stability is the vow that binds each monk to the community, Brother Anthony said. They rarely, if ever, leave the community.
To maintain their lifestyle, the monks refrain from TV and radio use and have controlled Internet access. Monastic meals are “ample,” with one full meal each day. At the Abbey of Genesee, all monks are vegetarian and most Trappist monks, according to Brother Anthony, practice vegetarianism as “esthetical or penitential approaches.”
“It’s a very balanced lifestyle in general,” Slater said. “It’s a school of life and the art of living. The most rewarding life is the one in which you give yourself away the most.”
Director of Newman Community of Geneseo Mike Sauter has organized interaction between Geneseo students and the monastery since 2002. Sauter now facilitates 45-minute book discussions of pieces like Olivier Clement’s On Human Being.