Weatherford Democrat

September 17, 2013

Atlanta vacation tip: Visit the… monastery?

by Christine Tibbetts
CNHI News Service

— The Braves aren’t the only men in Atlanta attracting travelers’ attention; monks are too.

While joyous noise defines the baseball stadium, silence permeates the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in nearby Conyers.

Silence is for listening. For personal reflection. For a day away with purpose and peace. This is silence you can visit. Silence of the ages.

“We don’t think just in hundreds of years,” says Francis Michael Stiteler, abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

“We think in thousands of years,” he says of his Trappist brothers, and of monastic life through the centuries.

Visitors join for an afternoon, or a multi-night retreat. Monks stay a lifetime. Nearly four dozen monks live in this place of 2,300 acres, teeming with birds and butterflies, wildflowers, woods and green spaces.

The Abbot points out fluttering wildlife with authority; he’s a photographer and has documented 53 species of dragonflies and 91 butterflies.

“We conserve the lands not only for monks,” the Abbot says, “but for all who see green space as a cherished commodity and for those who hunger for spaces of solitary beauty.”

Hikers and bikers visiting the monastery can also explore the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, pristine acres of which the monastery is a part.

There are only 49 such nature, culture, historic designations in America, and this one ties the Monastery’s peaceful grounds to Panola Mountain State Park, Arabia Mountain, streams, trails, bicycle paths and more.                       

Br. Peter Damian has an artist’s eye and a chef’s taste, accessible for conversation amidst the retail in the Monastery book and gift store.

“What we eat and what we breathe is part of how we enter the silence,” he said while I sipped a cup of dark roast, organic coffee and contemplated buying monk-made biscotti. 

He was unpacking folk art nativities, pleased I noticed the Fair Trade textiles and handcrafted items. Local authors include some of the monks, sharing a bookstore with national and international writers.

“People are drawn here with spiritual hunger,” said Br. Callistus. “Our titles are timeless and traditional, topics from the Middle Ages and mysticism, spirituality and monasticism.”

I noticed yoga books and works of the Dalai Lama, Tich Nhat Hanh and, of course, Thomas Merton, who was a member of the Gethsamini Cistercian monastic order in Kentucky which launched Holy Spirit in Conyers.

Cookbooks too.  I selected “A Taste of Heaven: Guide to food and drink made by monks and nuns” and “A Continual Feast: celebrate the joys of family and faith.”   

Some of the bookstore titles reflect the focus of retreats, Friday and Saturday weekend immersion, and Monday through Thursday sessions. Topics range widely: monastic wisdom or Flannery O’Connor, image, faith and photography or divine mercy.

Expect a $30 non–refundable deposit when reserving a spot. A free will love offering of $60-$100 a night is suggested. Reservations include three meals, housing, bed and bath linens, coffee, tea and refreshments.

Don’t expect to see the monks’ living quarters.  Do expect to be welcomed at daily worship services in the Gothic church, an unadorned quiet place of substantial white concrete, monk-built, four-foot thick walls, hand-smoothed white concrete columns.

“Monks are basically practical people,” Dom Francis Michael observes. “Monastic values are also human values,” he said, “prayer, work, silence, solitude and community.

Christine Tibbetts covers U.S. and international travel destinations for the CNHI News Service. Follow her at www.TibbettsTravel.com.