Holy Spirit Monastery, with its 102-year-old father and tradition of hospitality, is a serene spot for reflection this time of year.
When Father Francis Michael, the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, explains to children the concept of a monastery, it goes something like this: “It’s like Jesus draws a big circle,” he begins very simply. “He says he wants you to live in that circle for the rest of your life. He’s going to put other people in the circle with you, but you don’t get to choose. He’s going to choose them. All you have to do is learn how to love one another.”
On 2,400 acres just outside metropolitan Atlanta, there’s a circle of some 20-30 monks who perpetuate that concept daily. It might be thought of as an unlikely destination for the common man — those who are not called to a life of seclusion and contemplation — but in this 21st century, it’s those who live this cloistered existence who believe this is exactly the place every man should visit.
To know its purpose, one must understand its origin. On St. Benedict’s Day, March 21, 1944, 21 Trappist monks boarded a train in Kentucky and began their exodus South. With an increase in the Trappist vocation after WWII, a new North American foundation was needed. Georgia represented their “wilderness,” a geographical expanse, and their “desert,” a lacking of presence of the Catholic Church. It would be their calling.
Father Luke remembers boarding the train and the beginnings of his new life in Georgia. “We lived in a barn for eight months,” he says. With a grin from ear to ear, he continues, “If our Lord was born in a stable, why should we complain about living in a barn?” The single property, a barn that housed the monks as well as the cows and chickens, grew from a temporary pine board monastery constructed in silence to a permanent one of mortar in 1959.
As the only remaining monk who made the original pilgrimage, Father Luke, now 102, has come to symbolize the strength and tenacity of those who live within the walls. Father Luke states that their vocation is to “pray for the world,” and they believe they should stand apart and lead a contemplative life. However, in separating themselves, they also believe they should welcome others.
Although many aspects of the monastery remain cloistered, the monks share portions of their lifestyle, their work and their landscape.
Following by example, The Retreat House offers renewal for the mind and body, a schedule fashioned by daily life. Visitors are welcomed during appointed times to “get away from it all” and to live as the monks do. Retreats are scheduled throughout the year, each with themes such as “Finding God” or “Spiritual Healing for Veterans.” Reservations are required.
Albeit it a simple life, it is one of self-sufficiency. Work is an integral part of daily living; whether it’s in the bakery, the garden or one of the buildings where regular visitors gather, each has a job. The Monastic Heritage Center, which includes the bonsai garden and the original renovated barn, educates visitors on monastic origins and their contributions to human progress. The Abbey Store, the largest Catholic book store in Georgia, features fair trade items as well as specialty foods and monk-made products. Their most beloved product continues to be the fudge, which is only surpassed by their latest addition, biscotti, made with blueberries, cranberries and cherries.
It is the beauty of its surroundings that begets inspiration. It has been said that monks were actually among the first groups to consciously form their environment to further their mode of life. The campus and the church both have architecture that is clean, stripped of unnecessary distractions; the stained glass windows were designed simply, of dominant blues and geometric patterns, with the assigned monk responsible for an arrangement that would reflect his expression.
The hundreds of surrounding woodlands, now part of a protected permanent easement, also make up one of the largest privately owned green spaces in the United States. As one of five gateways into the Arabia National Heritage Area — over 7,000 acres of public land — it serves as one of several historic sites in the area as well as a portal to walking and hiking trails within Panola Mountain State Park.
It’s almost paradoxical for the century’s old way of life of this Georgia Cistercian monastery to be in the public eye, opening its doors and offering itself as a destination for travelers.
Years ago, it became obvious that the number of new monks arriving was decreasing, while the monks who were there increased in age; in addition, declining structures as well as increasing expenses were mounting to pay for the non-monastics who began to play a pivotal role. Studies were commissioned to learn how they would survive years into the future. The answer was tourism. While many saw it as worldly, the monks recognized it as a return to one of their basic beliefs: hospitality.
“The monks came to our area 70 years ago when we were still a sleepy, rural, agricultural community,” states Harriet Gattis of the Conyers Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When they settled here, there was only one Catholic family in all of Rockdale County. From the first year they were here, the monastery drew visitors to Conyers and quickly established itself as our county’s first tourist attraction.”
In the years to come, the Holy Spirit Monastery wants to increase its circle — its visibility, preserve its areas of silence and remain a spiritual oasis in a chaotic world. Gattis says it best: “It provides a little touch of heaven to all who come.”
The Monastery Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Grounds are open to the public every day. Services, including 4:30 a.m. vigil, 7 a.m. morning prayer and Mass, 12:15 p.m. mid-day prayer, 5:20 p.m. vespers and 7:30 p.m. compline, are also open to the public. Admission and parking are free. Click here to view the retreat schedule for the rest of the year and 2014.
Photos by full circle fotography.