PIFFARD, N.Y. — The heady scent of anise wafts through the air as six monks bake biscotti at the Abbey of the Genesee. Slabs of biscotti dough, having been baked once and cooled, are piled into crisscrossed stacks.
Trappist monks Paul Richards and Placid Larkin, dressed in white pants and shirts, their hair covered with stretchable white caps, work together at the biscotti cutter. Richards feeds a slab into the machine’s revolving blades. Larkin catches sliced biscotti on a tray at the other end. Their discussion about the idea of feeding two bricks at a time is punctuated by the high-pitched buzz of the blade.
Nearby, two monks, ages 85 and 90, carefully place the biscotti in neat rows on trays. Once 20 trays have been filled and placed on a rack, the Rev. Isaac Slater, the bakery manager, wheels the rack into an oven as tall as he is.
Biscotti are one of two new product lines being sold by the abbey, best known for its popular line of Monks’ breads. While the new products generate revenue to help support the monks, they also represent a shift toward work that is more compatible with monastic life.
Life at the abbey
The Abbey of the Genesee is home to 28 contemplative monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. The monks come from around the United States as well as Canada, Korea, China and India. Three are at various stages of the novitiate, the process of joining monastic life. Two recently arrived from The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Utah, which closed.
Monasteries are experiencing trends similar to those of the Catholic Church in the United States. As the number of priests has declined, so too has the number of men in monastic institutes, from 3,262 in 1970 to 1,750 in 2015, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Monastic life is made up of reading, meditation, prayer and manual labor in an atmosphere of simplicity, silence and community. The silence aspect is often misunderstood, said the Rev. Gerard D’Souza, 58, the abbot in charge of the abbey. While silence is an essential discipline, they speak to each other and to guests as their roles require.
“Words you say are meaningful and appropriate rather than superfluous,” D’Souza said. “What you do speak comes out of the silence.”
The monks rise around 2 a.m. and the first liturgical service of the day, Vigils, is at 2:25 a.m. The monks will pray six more times by the end of the day. After the 6:40 p.m. service, called Compline, begins the grand silence, and the monks will not speak until 6 a.m. the next day.
People from all faith traditions and backgrounds visit the monastery chapel to walk the grounds and join the monks in prayer, Slater said.
The monastery renovated its chapel two years ago. New wooden pews were built by the monks. A pipe organ was custom-built in Slovenia. A new lighting system changes for different periods of prayer, and in-floor radiant heat adds comfort. The renovation also has made the chapel easier to access via wheelchair. The monastery plans to expand and relocate the shop where food and books are sold next year.
Slater said people visit the monastery to experience life in a different rhythm. It offers a peaceful place to unwind and settle, and come away refreshed and rejuvenated.
“The human spirit hungers for that,” Slater said. “I think it’s providing something essential for an active world."
Manual work, an essential element of all Trappist monasteries, enables them to support themselves without being beholden to donors who might place expectations on them or their time. The hard work and perseverance required of manual work also helps the monks form character, D'Souza said.
Bread continues to be, well, the bread and butter of the abbey, with 40,000 loaves made each week. The bread bakery, on the grounds of the monastery, was originally staffed entirely by monks. Now, about a dozen monks are involved in the bread bakery, with some working on the bakery floor and others involved in overseeing the business side. In addition, 20 to 25 laypeople work in the bakery, and the monks take pride in providing jobs for local families.
The bread bakery is a large, loud operation with conveyor belts taking the loaves through the baking process. The work can be rigorous and not well-suited to older monks. While the monks range in age from the 20s to the 90s, the average age is in the mid- to late 60s.
The specialty bakery, which makes the new products, offers a better pace of work. The tasks can be broken into manageable segments. New monks can work alongside older monks, thus building community. Even less able-bodied monks can stamp dates on packages and be a part of the process.
“Our center of gravity is shifting,” Slater said
The monks started experimenting with biscotti five to six years ago, but they didn’t start the process in earnest until two years ago.
“We spent a lot of time getting the flavors just right,” Slater said.
The biscotti baking process begins at 4 a.m. with the mixing of the dough (between 250 and 500 pounds of dough will be made each day). Later in the morning, six monks work together to bake the crunchy oblong cookies. Another weighs the dry ingredients into containers ready for the next day’s batch. By the end of the day, they will have made 400 to 1,000 packages in all.
The fruit and nut bars had their genesis in an avocation of the 42-year-old Slater, who might be described as a “Renaissance monk.” In addition to managing the bakery, he is prior, and assists the abbot in governing the abbey. He cares for the older monks and writes poetry — three of his books are for sale at the monastery. An avid runner, he started making his own energy bars from the dates, fruits and nuts left over when the bakery phased out fruitcake.
“The creative process is the side I find most enjoyable,” Slater said.
The fruit and nut bars are now available in four flavors, with chocolate espresso being the most popular.
While the bakeries are a significant part of monastic life, the abbey does not look to maximize profits or become a 24/7 operation.
“Work is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” Slater said.