The Genesee Diary ~ A Peek Inside a Trappist Monastery

Recently my mother reminded me of a book that had been on my reading wish list for a long, long time - The Genesee Diary, a journal compiled by the late Father Henri Nouwen, a priest, teacher, and psychologist from Holland who spent seven months living as a monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York, not too far from Rochester. 

Growing Up Near the Genesee Valley
I think one desire to read this book stems from my upstate New York roots, having grown up in the Rochester, NY area.  Also, having great curiosity and admiration for nuns and monks who live such lives of asceticism, I knew this book would give me an opportunity to be sort of like a fly on a monastic wall … it would offer me a rare and insightful peek inside. 

A Priest Desires Some Time Away
In the 1970s, after years of writing, teaching, traveling, and speaking, Fr. Henri Nouwen felt compelled to pull away from his busy and demanding life for a time.  A friend of his, Fr. John Eudes, happened to have become the Abbot of the Abbey of the Genesee and so Fr. Henri requested special permission for a seven month stay … to temporarily live the life of a Cistercian/Trappist monk.  Such requests were normally denied, but the religious community of the Genesee Abbey voted this particularly gifted priest in.

Day-to-Day Events, Thoughts, and Revelations 
Henri Nouwen kept a diary on his many experiences, feelings, and revelations during his stay.  If blogs were an available tool at the time, this work would have made a great one.  His honesty is stunning, his thoughts often surprising.  Fr. Henri’s words do not feel contrived or overly-planned.  He freely shared his good moments and depressing ones.  This diary-turned-book is a full range of straightforward disclosures … admitted times of grumpy behavior, rejoicing over days filled with the spirit, and ponderings over simple things … like finding a button in the raisin-washing machine (for bread the monks make to support the Abbey) and wondering about the poor grape picker in California who probably did not notice when he lost a button while packing grapes into crates; grapes that ultimately found their way to the bakery at the Genesee Abbey in New York. 

Seeking God, Seeking God
In The Genesee Diary, Fr. Henri Nouwen repeatedly shared his desire to feel closer to the Lord, to focus more fully on Him, to place Him nearer to the center of his life.  Henri knew that this sort of focus was imperative for a more peaceful existence; but the temporary monk also confessed his frequent struggles of distraction. 

He shared his love for the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.) and strove to spend sizable chunks of his time at the monastery meditatively repeating these beautiful words.

Speaking Engagements and Exhaustion
Fr. Henri wrote in this fascinating journal about an experience of leaving the monastery one evening to speak before some college students at the nearby SUNY Geneseo.  Though the presentation went well, Fr. Henri felt a healthy connection with the students and his words felt inspired; he also expressed how the presentation drained him ... that speaking engagements in general seemed to sap him of energy.  His spiritual advisor at the Abbey (his friend the Abbot, Fr. John Eudes) encouraged Fr. Henri to consider focusing more on writing which seemed to energize him, rather than speaking which seemed to deplete his emotional resources.

Seven Months as a Monk ~ Inspiring, but Not a Permanent Fix for Problems
In his conclusion, Fr. Henri candidly explained how his seven months at the Abbey did not “fix” all of the issues and struggles of his life, but he did learn to praise God in the midst of problems that naturally arise in everyday living, making the journey of life feel more meaningful.

If you appreciate insightful, spiritual writing, or would like a peek inside a Cistercian/Trappist monastery, The Genesee Diary might be a good book for your consideration.

Some Words of Wisdom
Fr. Henri Nouwen developed, learned, and gleaned much from his time at the Abbey.  Some were thoughts that developed through experiences there, some came from spiritual reading, and other insights were from discussions with the Trappist monks at the monastery.  Below are just a few nuggets of learning Fr. Henri presented in his diary:

July 20, 1974 - Monks are like children: very shy and very sensitive.  When you ruffle them, they tend to withdraw.

September 29, 1974 – When manual work and spiritual reading are no longer prayer but only a way to earn money or be intellectually stimulated, we lose purity of heart.

November 24, 1974 – Jesus allowed the will of his Father to be done through Pilate, Herod, mocking soldiers, and a gaping crowd that did not understand.

December 22, 1974 – My stay at the monastery, however, has not only brought me closer to Christ, it has brought me closer to the world as well.  In fact, distance from the world has made me feel more compassionate toward it.

Abbey of the Genesee, The.  Daily Monastic Schedule.  Retrieved June 14, 2012 from

Abbey of the Genesee, The.  Who We Are.  Retrieved June 14, 2012 from

Henri Nouwen Society.  About Henri Nouwen.  Retrieved June 13, 2012 from www.henrinouwen.or/About_Henri.aspx.

Nouwen, Henri J. M.  The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery.  New York, New York: An Image Book by Doubleday, 1981.

O.C.S.O. - Order of the Observance of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.  FAQs.  Retrieved on June 14, 2012 from

O.C.S.O. - Order of the Observance of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.  Our Identity.  Retrieved on June 14, 2012 from