A Class at Pax Interruptus, by THL Mairghread Stoibheard inghean ui Choinne

A solemn large bell tolls the monks, dressed in clothing unchanged since the 11th century, in from the wheat and rye fields to the handcrafted field stone abbey church. The monastery is called the Abbey of the Genesee, home to the famous “Monk’s Bread” bakery and is located in somewhat of a time warp on a beautiful hilltop above the Genesee River a mere 14 miles from the event site for Pax Interruptus in the Barony of Thescorre.

Gemlike windows of colored glass, icons in the Russian period style, and libraries with an assortment of references on iconography, calligraphy and illumination are a few of the aspects of the monastery eagerly observed by a group of seven gentles attending Pax Interruptus on July 8, A.S. 52.

The Schedule
The schedule for the excursion led by THL Mairghread Stoibheard inghean ui Choinne included:

10: 40 am (after morning court) Depart for Abbey – meet at cook’s tent

11:00 Brother Anthony to give a short talk on the hand sign language still in use at the Abbey for communicating during the “Grand Silence” (omitted due to a later departure)

11:15  Attend Sext (optional) – this is a service where Gregorian Chant is sung by the monks in antiphonal/response mode with the congregation using a psalter that is a copy of hand calligraphed original.  The psalter is for sale at the Abbey book store. (omitted due to a later departure)

11:30 View life sized icon in reception room

11:30 Visit gift ship including the book store and calligraphy and illuminations on display and sold there (you can also purchase Monk’s Bread made at the Abbey for cost and many other baked goods made at the Abbey and products of various Trappist abbeys as well. (Credit cards and checks are accepted)

12:15 View illuminated heraldry in the narthex, review the use of the psalter, view stained glass, solid limestone altar and additional icon in the Abbey church

12:30 lunch – Eat in front of the abbey residence wing – by the pond or in the shade.

1:00 View the life size high-quality reproductions of the medieval manuscripts such as “The Crusaders’ Bible” or ”Morgan Picture Bible” or the “Maciejowski Bible” or the “Shah ‘Abbas Bible” at Bethlehem House

Many thanks to the autocrat, Lady Marguerite III de Neufchâtel, and the Cooks’ Co-ordinator, Baroness  Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina, and her staff for preparing lunches ahead for the side trip.

The Icons and Illumination References
In the reception area, we were greeted by a stunning, larger than life icon of a saint. The abbey has several icons including one in the church near the tabernacle depicting Mary with the infant Jesus comforting her face with his hand. It is in the style of the icon shown at left named “The Comfort and Consolation of the Theotokos“  from the monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece.

During our last stop at Bethlehem Retreat House in the west library, we were able to view the book “The Treasures of the Monastery of St. Catherine’s“ that included many icons and mosaics as wells as ornate gold mitres (clerical hats) and chalices.

In addition, there were folios of several life size, very high quality reproductions from the “The Crusaders’ Bible” with faux gold gilding. This bible is also known as the ”Morgan Picture Bible” or the “Maciejowski Bible” or the “Shah ‘Abbas Bible”. Several full size folios from “The Book of Kells” were also viewed. The Kells images show how parchment was stitched onto damaged corners to repair certain pages. One of our participants, Mistress Rhiannon y Bwa, explained that these are printers’ samples.

The library includes many historical and some period and primary source references about the monastic movements of St. Bernard and associated art and practices.

The Garb or Habit
It was interesting to observe the garb or “habit” of the porter. The porter is the monk who is permitted to interact with visitors in the reception area since this is a cloistered abbey. The white wool T-Tunic and brown wool tabard with leather belt and sandals are unchanged from the 11th century as shown in this painting Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux by Joerg Breu the Elder from 1500 C.B.E.

It is common to see the habits worn by the monks mended with darning. Belts and sandals are apt to be quite worn as the Trappists take a lifelong vow of poverty.

The Heraldry
In the narthex leading to the abbey church, the abbey heraldry hangs on the stone wall accompanied by the following description:

“The abbey is signified by the crozier [at top]. The blue and white Marian [signifying Mary] colors indicate that the abbey is dedicated to Mary as is the entire Cistercian of the Strict [or Trappist] Order.

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 banks, derived from the Seneca Indian name for the Genesee River Valley.

Three Indian arrowheads on the river recall the Seneca Indians who made the Genesee River Valley their home. They call themselves Tshotinondawage, people of the mountains. The arrowhead are red to further represent  the Seneca Indians and are turned upwards in the militant position to signify defense of their homeland. Above and below is the crescent, a symbol of Our Lady [Mary].                         “

Note that heraldically, a bend from upper left to lower right symbolizes an unmarried male.

The Psalter Calligraphy
The psalter, which is for sale in the shop was copied out by hand at the Abbey. The original was done using India ink with a #2.5 or #3 pen in an unclassified hand, taking four hundred hours over a period of ten months starting in February 1974. It suggests the individual character and is appropriate to the meditative recital in Gregorian Chant of some of the 150 psalms each day in seven different short services (the Divine Office) and underlines the peace and silence the monks seek in prayer.

Meredith Parsons Lillich, Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University, wrote ”This handsome, austere, Cistercian Psalter was written by one monk over a period of nearly a year. In that time his letter forms gradually and imperceptibly changed, by slight and unconscious refinements. A comparison of his opening pages with his final verses of Psalm 150 would lead a professional paleographer, without hesitation, to attribute the hand to two different scribes. All the rules of the paleographic analysis are broken, since even the most distinctive letters (g, a) have changed in their shapes.  The script of this Cistercian Psalter is thus, in itself, a creation which is orderly, disciplined and unified, yet intricate, complex and growing.”

Calligraphy, Illumination, Baked Goods and Other Shop Wares
Many of the gentles of Thescorre, Delftwood, and the Hael have eaten “Monk’s Bread” baked at this monastery their entire life. Originally all Mink’s Bread was produced here, but due to expansion, now only locally distributed and on-line sales are baked at the abbey bakery on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. The cost of the bread at the abbey store is reduced by almost 40 percent from grocery store prices. Other Trappist wares are offered including cookies and fruit cakes prepared at the abbey bakery. Micro greens from the cloister garden were also available the day of our visit.

In addition to the extensive book store, illuminations/icons, and calligraphed and illuminated cards and prints of icons are for sale. These artworks were created by a SUNY Geneseo alumni and artist, Minhhang K. Huynh. Minhhang was raised in Vietnam in the Buddhist tradition. She began studying tempera techniques such as fresco and wood panel and crucifix painting in Sienna, Italy in 1994.  Through her work on sacred paintings in the medieval tradition, she became a spiritual student of Rev. Father John Eudes Bamberger, who was abbot of the monastery at the time (He is now one of the handful of brothers who live in hermitages on the west side of River Rd.)

The Architechure and Site
The abbey buildings were begun in 1951 when several monks were sent from the motherhouse, Gethsemani, near Louisville, Ky. to establish the foundation on one-thousand acres of land donated to the Order. The buildings are of post and beam construction with walls of fieldstones mined from the land.

Even the stained glass windows are re-purposed glass.The main door faces east as in the tradition in Western and many Eastern monasteries.

Many of the charter members were WWII veterans who sought the solitude of a simpler lifestyle and opportunity to better the world through their works after their harrowing combat experiences. The bread made at the abbey is donated to many local charities.  Local hunters can be given permission to hunt on the land on the east side of River Rd. which includes part of the Genesee Greenway trail leading to the Genesee River.

Members of our party observed the simple wooden crosses of the cemetery and heard the peals of the great outdoor bell that tolls the times for “Office” in the cloistered enclosure as cars pulled in and out of the parking lot. Similar to the SCA, the abbey is a blend of the modern and mundane with the charm and authenticity of medieval culture carefully preserved and practiced.

This class was not able to get to the abbey in time to hear a talk on the hand sign language still in use at the abbey, or hear the Gregorian chant of a service, but there is interest from Delftwood and Thescorre in a repeat excursion. Anyone can visit the abbey between 2:00 am and 7:00 pm each day of the year.

Although our group ranged from those reared in the Catholic and various protestant and new age traditions, and agnostics, as well as those who have merely been on a personal spiritual journey, all agreed that we left more peaceful, enriched and inspired.