On this trip we want to experience things both on and far off the beaten path. So the path less-traveled this morning led us to the 75-year -old Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Catholic monastery hidden in the rural beauty of Georgia peach country. A recent capitol campaign built a wonderful visitor’s center and museum and made tourism a key element of the monks’ daily existence.
On this cold, rainy morning, we rolled into the empty lot, rushed through the drizzle to the visitor center and were welcomed by two old monks. Father Thomas Francis, the more mobile of the two, was an unexceptional looking 70-something in the white tunic and brown scapular of the Trappist order. As soon as he spoke, however, we were warmed by his calm, and it was clear he was far from ordinary – more on that in a moment.
He shuffled us into a small state-of-the-art theater to watch a twenty-minute introduction where we learned the history of the monastery. In 1944, twenty monks hand built a small barn in the Georgia countryside donated by rich Catholic benefactor Henry Luce. They lived in the barn for nearly 15 years while they constructed, by hand, their original monastery. They wheel barrowed many tons of concrete into hand-built molds, cut their own wood, set their own stained-glass windows and even carved their own stonework. Over time, they built a work of art, but more important a serene sanctuary ideal for their life’s calling.
The men of this monastery live an exceptionally disciplined life focused wholly on contemplation, the precision art of introspection about everything from love and politics to religion and even their own God. They wake before the sun at 4 a.m. for their first worship of the day, then share a simple breakfast and immediately delve into a second worship, Lauds and Mass, at 7 a.m. At 8:45, they begin work in a variety of communal careers. Some are bakers, some are gardeners, and some work at the visitor center as docents. The community is self sufficient selling collectibles, bonsai trees, homemade fruit loaves and cakes and even literature written by the monks themselves.
They again eat communally after their12:15 Midday Prayer. They begin working again at 2:30 p.m., ending for 5:20 and then 7:00 evening worship. This grueling schedule is tough for even the longest serving monks. One says the early morning wakeup call is still a struggle.
Following the film, we had the chance again to catch up with Father Francis who, at 84 years old, has lived nearly 60 years in the solitary contemplativeness of the Monastery. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama described as the incarnation of peace, a man so fully enveloped in the moment, and so open, that you can’t help but be bettered by his presence. Until now, I had never met anyone close to this description. But Father Francis, drew us into a deep, wonderful conversation of world religion peppered so perfectly with humor, faith, and even a little debate that if you close your eyes, you’d be hard pressed to guess that in front of you stood a solitary monk.
Lucky for us, the rules of the monastery have been softened over time. The original monks took a vow of silence, going so far as to develop their own sign language to communicate on the work site. Our conversation could never have been as fulfilling had we been required to navigate an unrecognizable non-verbal language and cloistered, archaic views.
The monastery is famous for their simple fruit breads and cakes sold in their gift shop. They also produce canned sauces and handicrafts like finger rosaries and their own published materials. We purchased blueberry bread and finger rosary for a dear friend and headed off to our next adventure. We’d definitely suggest an afternoon visit and a loaf of blueberry bread to nurse your soul.