Journey to Genesee: “Those who think they have arrived have lost their way”

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I spent Saturday afternoon visiting with my sister, who lives part of the year in Geneseo, New York, about an hour’s drive southeast of Buffalo.

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She arranged for us to get a private tour of a place I’ve always wanted to visit: The Abbey of the Genesee, a well-known Trappist monastery just a short drive from her home.

It was a miserable, rainy afternoon, so we confined most of our visit to the indoors.

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Our guide was the delightful Brother Augustine—a.k.a., Brother Auggie.

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The chapel has a rustic, earthy quality that is a marked contrast to most Trappist houses I’ve seen. Built in the early 1970s, it’s very much a product of its times. The church was renovated just last year. (You can see pictures of the project here.)

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The abbot’s crozier depicts the Genesee River—with arrowheads pointing north. (Amazing fact: The Genesee is one of only a handful of rivers in North America that actually flows north.)

The abbey’s website explains:

In heraldry, a river is symbolized by a wavy silver band. Here it symbolizes the Genesee River Valley where the abbey is located. The golden wavy lines on each side express golden bank, derived from the Seneca Indian name for the Genesee River Valley.

The three Indian arrowheads on the river recall the Seneca Indians who made the Genesee Valley their home. They call themselves Tshotinondawage, people of the mountains. The arrowheads are red to further represent the Seneca Indians and are turned upwards in the militant position to signify the defense of their homeland.

Above and below the wavy band of river and golden banks is a crescent, the symbol of Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception. It is under this title that she is patroness of the United States.

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The gift shop, of course, features a selection of Merton books—and the famousMonks Bread. My sister tells me the monks are expanding this industry and it will soon be available in Wegmans grocery stores around the country.

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The great Henri Nouwen spent seven months on sabbatical at Genesee in the 1970s, helping collect the stones from the river that were used to construct the chapel. It was work he found difficult, tedious—and edifying. In his book “The Genesee Diary,” his account of that memorable year, he wrote:

“There is a contemplative way of working that is more important for me than praying, reading, or singing. Most people think that you go to the monastery to pray. Well, I prayed more this week than before but also discovered that I have not learned yet to make the work of my hands into a prayer.”

Nouwen’s work continued long after he left Genesee. So does mine. It was a wonderful visit, and I’m grateful to Brother Auggie for taking the time to show to us around. I left uplifted and happy and would love to return some day soon for a retreat.

After I got home, I found this quote of Nouwen’s from “The Genesee Diary” that I think is very Mertonesque—and quietly profound, both timeless and timely:

“He who thinks that he is finished, is finished. How true. Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons.”

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Top and bottom photos via Abbey of the Genesee website. All others, Deacon Greg.

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