PIFFARD — Save for some chirping birds, a crowing rooster and an occasional car passing by on River Road, the grounds of Bethlehem House were surrounded by total silence on a sunny, late-July summer morning.
The thought of being so isolated among the rolling farmlands of northwest Livingston County doesn’t jazz everyone, acknowledged Mike Sauter, retreat-house coordinator for Abbey of the Genesee. However, he promises spiritual benefits for those willing to forgo their daily existence in favor of embracing silence and nature in a retreat setting.
“It’s completely counter-cultural,” Sauter said.
Catholics and non-Catholics have ample retreat opportunities at the abbey, which oversees three retreat houses with a combined capacity of 50 people. Lengths of stay vary from day retreats by individuals and groups to overnight, weekend and even weeklong retreats.
The main retreat building is Bethlehem House, which is used mostly by individuals. Among its features are a “talking room” (silence is observed in all other parts of the guest house, even at meal time) as well as a library, reading room and chapel. Outside Bethlehem House, retreat participants may opt to tend the chickens and goats that reside on the property, do some gardening, or take quiet walks on paths that cut through fields and run alongside the Genesee River.
Bethlehem House is where Abbey of the Genesee’s founding Trappist monks first resided in 1951 while their monastery was still being constructed a half-mile down the road. The abbey’s other two retreat houses are Bethany House, which serves as a guest house for monks’ families who visit and also can be used for group retreats; and Nazareth House, which accommodates group retreats as well.
Retreatants at all of the guest houses are invited to visit the monastery for activities involving the cloistered monks, who are best known to the public for their extensive Monks’ Bread operation. Offerings at the abbey include daily Mass and Liturgy of the Hours, which also are open to the general public; an evening retreat talk given by a priest or brother several times per week; and spiritual direction and confession.
Attendance for retreats is brisk right through the fall, according to Sauter. In addition to people who journey to Piffard from around the Diocese of Rochester, he said many retreatants come from cities near the New York State Thruway/Interstate 90 stretching as far west as Cleveland and as far east as Syracuse.
Sauter said he’s encouraged by the number of young people who engage in retreats at the abbey, often with their families or church youth groups. In addition, students from nearby SUNY Geneseo — where Sauter serves as Catholic campus minister and teaches two classes — frequent the abbey for prayer as well as book-study sessions with the monks.
The silence and simplicity of a monastery setting, Sauter asserted, helps counter present-day cultural values that wrongly prioritize “a variety of experiences vs. a depth of experience.”
“Hyper-mobility would be the curse of the modern age,” he said, remarking that people are so caught up in their own lives that they don’t stop to appreciate God’s creation or develop meaningful relationships.
Yet Sauter observed that many retreatants willingly leave their electronic devices at home, or use them only sparingly, in an effort to rediscover their depth of thought and spirituality.
“To me, it feels like getting back to basics here,” he said.