I have a profound sensitivity to gluten, and so, have no business writing about bread; however, this is the industry at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee in western New York, where I recently spent the better part of a week in peaceful retreat from the world. They make excellent bread at this abbey, which is sold far beyond the gates of the monastery; you might even find it at Wegman’s, if you have one of those supermarkets nearby. But I didn’t come here for the bread, just as I wouldn’t go to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky just for their fudge (which is fabulous, by the way, and alone just might make the trip worthwhile). I always allow myself a single slice of the monk’s fine bread whenever I’m here, and consider whatever discomfort that follows as my penance. It’s worth it!
It all reminds me that, much as we regard abbeys and monasteries as places of silence and prayer, they are also places of work. Ora et Labora. If your only experience of priests and brothers is through diocesan parishes, you would be surprised to learn that most of the monks, except the extremely infirm, do indeed work at their humble industries, sometimes the most august members in the most mundane positions. The great writer Henri Nouwen was a visitor to this very abbey, and if you read his account of it, in The Genesee Diary, he even writes about how difficult he found some of his chores, moving rocks and mixing dough, as well as a small mishap with a backhoe. While I was there, the retreat-master asked at dinner for male volunteers to work a shift at the bakery to help the monks—apologizing quite profusely to the women in the group, who could not be allowed inside the monastery. I would have loved the opportunity to work in the kitchens, alongside the monks! But it probably would not be a good idea for me to be around all that flour, which could trigger a nasty auto-immune reaction. Which saddens me, because bread is such a perfectly essential symbol of faith—not only does it play a role in our liturgy, but it takes a great deal of faith to believe that lump of gooey dough is going to turn into anything substantial: When it does, it’s a triumph, something to celebrate. And the monks make very good bread; they also very kindly make treats for the retreatants, cookies and cakes and such, which I can’t eat but can admire from afar.
But women are not completely excluded from the lives of the monks. In the bookstore/breadstore (combined for now while the Abbey continues its renovation of visitor spaces), I met a lovely woman, Minh/Clare (Huynh), who has been working with the monks for some time now, and finding spiritual enrichment with them. She has a ministry with children as well. Her spiritual mentor here is Father John Eudes Bamberger, with whom I have met and spoken in the past: Bamberger, the former acting Abbot, had been at Gethsemani with Thomas Merton and knew him well. I did see Father Bamberger on this visit, still participating in the liturgies, but he is quite frail now. But Minh is also a gifted artist; when she learned I was continuing on to Allegany and St. Bonaventure, she told me to go and “visit” her artwork at the Regina Arts Center on campus. Indeed, it is there, hanging on the wall of the theatre section, bigger than life, a vivid and modern take on the San Damiano cross, quite lovely. We also had a wonderful conversation about the connection between the Trappists and the Franciscans. I ignorantly thought it began with Merton, but no, Minh enlightened me, it began centuries ago with Bernard of Clairveaux.
It was a balmy 86 degrees during my stay there, a bit unusual for Western New York in mid October. I found myself sharing an exceedingly warm little attic room with some frantic shield bugs, obviously unsettled by the unseasonable heat. I simply picked them up and tossed them back out the window. These are not luxury accommodations, but I liked that; I liked to imagine it was as close to monastic living as I could get. And who needs luxury when there is so much natural beauty about, for miles and miles. There seemed an odd, spring-like atmosphere there during the whole stay; the abbey chickens frolicking in the yards and wandering about—we had some of their eggs for dinner; the chipmunks who kept running over the tops of my shoes as I sat on the front porch, writing in a notebook. It was in all a good week to go. I reveled in all the lovely silence, silence that never felt weird or lonely, but as nourishing as I imagine the monks’ fresh baked bread must be.