Nestled among the pine trees and magnolias 20 miles from downtown Atlanta is the Monastery of the Holy Spirit where Cistercian monks, also known as Trappists, have dedicated their lives to work, contemplation and prayer in a monastic tradition that goes back 1,600 years.
The monastery celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and as their surroundings have changed from rural to suburban the monks have worked hard to keep up with the times while still preserving their traditions and the natural beauty of the land. The result of that hard work today has turned the monastery into a destination for thousands of visitors annually.
There’s a lot to see on the monastery’s 2,300-acre campus. The Abbey Church and Monastery are impressive concrete structures in a Norman Gothic architecture style and were built by the monks themselves over 15 years. The monastery is part of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area that covers 7,000 acres of preserved woodlands and historical landmarks. The Rockdale River Trail, a paved path for walking and cycling, follows the South River and connects the monastery with the Panola Mountain State Park, Arabia Mountain Nature Center, Olde Town Conyers and the city of Lithonia.
But what makes the Monastery of the Holy Spirit unique are the 35 monks living there today in peace and reflection as they follow a life-long spiritual journey. Groups and individuals can reserve a room in the monastery’s Retreat House where they can spend uninterrupted time in prayer and reflection. Many others come just for a day to walk the grounds and take a break from the outside world.
The monastery began when 21 monks from Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky arrived on the property in Rockdale County on March 22, 1944. The Rule of St. Benedict guides the monks in their daily lives and instructs them to abandon excess of the outside world to live in mostly solitude and silence.
Brother Callistus, a monk who serves as a spokesman for the monastery, explained “the vow of silence” is more pop culture than reality. Monks vow to live at a monastery for the rest of their lives and limit conversation to getting work done each day. Otherwise, they are silence during meals and in their private moments to avoid distraction from their one goal – to live in union with God with a yearning for a closer following of Jesus Christ.
“We know it every morning we wake up here that we will be here with God,” he said. “We know God is here to first of all to put the desire in our hearts and give us the grace to act on that desire. He then gives us the grace to live it, to endure it, to persevere through it every waking moment, God, God, God.”
The monks’ work sustains the monastery. Callistus said the monks are always “looking for that next widget” to generate revenue and maintain the monastery.
In the early days, monks raised livestock and grew crops. The monks later developed an expertise in creating stained-glass windows that quickly gained a reputation for quality and craftsmanship. Their work in glass can be found in hundreds of churches across the United States. More recently, the monks sell fudge and biscotti made in their kitchen. Also, Bonsai trees and accessories have provided income for the monastery.
But in the mid 2000s revenue was not enough to the needs of the monastery, so the monks began meeting among themselves and with supporters to develop a long-term plan. Callistus explained supporters from the business world came to help the monks figure out their challenges. They came to the conclusion that the monastery’s biggest asset was people.
“They said ‘how many people come here?’ ‘70,000 a year!’ They said that was an industry that we weren’t tapping into,” Callistus said.
From those discussions a capital campaign was organized to build the Monastic Heritage Center complex that includes a welcome center, museum, Abbey store and bonsai garden with nursery and garden center.
The monks next voted to move forward with Heritage Center, but the decision was not unanimous. Some monks feared accommodating more visitors would encroach on their silence and solitude.
That turned out not to be the case. More and more people are coming to the monastery since the center opened in 2008. The center serves as a public gathering place that welcomes and prepares people for their visit.
The Heritage Center’s museum is built into a former dairy barn and offers a history of not just the monastery but also an overview of monastic life of Christian and non-Christian traditions. Visitors can enter the welcome center to watch a 20-minute film about the monastery and then are free to walk the grounds and visit the Abbey Church.
“They gather at the center and there’s this buffer between that area and the monastery proper. So tourists, visitors, who wanted to come they would go there to see the museum and shop. But if you want to go to monastery, then you quietly walk up. It’s a whole different thing,” Callistus said.
The AbbeyChurch is open daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for silent prayer and reflection. Visitors are welcome to join the monks at times of community prayer:
7 a.m.: Morning Prayer and Mass
12:15 p.m.: Midday Prayers
5:20 p.m.: Vespers (Evening Prayer)
7:30 p.m.: Compline (Night Prayer)
Contact email@example.com or call 770-760-0959 for more information on weekend and weekday retreats.