Prayers Optional: A Vacation Spent at Italy's Religious Guesthouses

Article excerpt

Italy's Monasteries and convents offer a quiet cultural retreat to travelers.

We hear the Italian nuns chanting their prayers as we creep down the convent stairs each evening, heading out to find yet another heavenly setting in which to dine on still more of their country's divine abundance.

My 22-year-old daughter and I are staying in religious guesthouses while touring Italy, a popular option in the dozen or so years since several guidebooks sent the idea into the travel mainstream.

At most such places, guests are invited, but not expected, to pray with the hosts. And if Italian was our native tongue, we'd probably join in. But the lack of shared language makes us wary of becoming consumers of things spiritual, looking to check "vespers" off an itinerary. Already, choosing the convent option in a country centered on religion risks trivializing it in a grasp at authenticity. So we opt for dinner.

Kevin J. Wright, travel industry expert and author of "Europe's Monastery and Convent Guesthouses," estimates that hundreds of Italian monasteries and convents - most with only a dozen or two rooms to rent - take in many thousands of travelers each year. Low prices, notoriously clean rooms, a family feel, and the safety of the enclosures are the big draws. And though virtually all are owned by Roman Catholic communities, they shelter travelers of all faiths.

Eileen Barish, author of "The Guide to Lodging in Italy's Monasteries," is Jewish and likens the experience to staying in the home of a welcoming, non-Jewish friend. She drinks in the history, architecture, and even the religious imagery in the buildings, she says. "I go to the chapels when I'm there because they're so beautiful."

Rome, the "home office" for Catholic congregations worldwide, houses the greatest concentration of such lodgings. Taking in guests allows the communities to sustain themselves even as their ranks are thinning, and a public eager for new and different travel experiences - even the experience of reflection or silence or spiritual growth - is there to help, says Mr. Wright. He estimates convent and monastery rates to be at least one-third lower than comparable nonreligious lodgings. The houses vary greatly. Some offer little more than a bed and a hall bath. Others have air conditioning, Internet access, private baths, and in-room TVs - recent innovations made in response to market forces.

Mark Logan, of the online booking website monasterystays.com, says the United States, Canada, and Australia supply the lion's share of convent/monastery business, typically couples in their 50s who've already done the requisite guided tour of Italy, as well as families and budget-minded travelers of all ages.

No matter how welcome the income may be for the hosts, hospitality first and foremost emanates from a biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, explains Brother Richard Oliver, webmaster for the Order of St. Benedict, the community most directly associated with monastic hospitality. Even in the case of visitors who come without an overt religious purpose, this theology considers the mystery of God to be ever at work, he explains: "There's some reason they're doing this rather than a cheap motel. You never know what someone has to give."

As early as the 3rd century AD, the desert fathers made hospitality a priority. Later, Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, elaborated on it in his famous rule: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, 'I came as a guest, and you received Me' " (a paraphrase of Matt. 25:35).

The most traditional - and conservative - abbeys are run by monks and nuns of the Cistercian, Trappist, and Benedictine orders, and guests there are generally expected to participate in the community's spiritual life, Brother Richard explains, since their very presence suggests some desire for retreat, silence, or discernment. …