The Genesee Diary: The Priest Who Needed to “Get Away”

Posted in: Catholicism

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who built a reputation as spiritual leader, teacher, and writer during his lifetime. During his time as a professor at Yale Divinity School in the 1970s, he spent seven months at a Trappist Monastery, The Abbey of the Genesee, in upstate New York living as a monk. He documented his time there in a diary, which was eventually published as the The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery.

I haven’t finished reading it, but a few points jumped out at me:

Even ordained Catholic priests who have committed themselves to God feel a need to retreat from the world and explore their own spirituality

In the writings of the desert fathers there is much emphasis on renunciation and detachment. We have to renounce the world, detach ourselves from our possessions, family, friends, own will, and any form of self-content so that all our thoughts and feelings may become free for the Lord. I find this very hard to realize. I keep thinking about distracting things and wonder if I ever will be “empty for God.” 

Yesterday and today the idea occurred to me that instead of excluding I could include all my thoughts, ideas, plans, projects, worries, and concerns and make them into prayer. Instead of directing my attention only to God, I might direct my attention to all my attachments and lead them into the all-embracing arms of God. When this idea grew in me, I experienced a new freedom and felt a great open space where I could invite all those I love and pray that God touch them with his love.

Thought: What would be the impact of making every aspect of your life an offering? 

Becoming a priest doesn’t rid you of human impulses and emotions

Moods are worth attention. I am discovering during these first weeks in Genesee that I am subject to very different moods, often changing very quickly. Feelings of a depressive fatigue, of low self-esteem, of boredom, feelings also of anger, irritation, and direct hostility, and feelings of gratitude, joy, and excitement—they all can be there, sometimes even during one day. I have the feeling that these quickly changing moods show how attached I really am to the many things given to me: a friendly gesture, pleasant work, a word of praise, a good book, etc. Little things can quickly change sadness into joy, disgust into contentment, and anger into understanding or compassion.

Thought: Are negative feelings avoidable? Would we want to avoid them? Or is the best way to deal with negative feelings is perhaps, to simply observe and accept them? That seems to be the Buddhist/Eastern way of doing things. Much different than the modern American mindset of “oh you have a bad feeling? let’s try to get rid of it somehow.”

Living a monastic life decreases the amount of external distraction, but forces you to confront the much more intense and deeper questions of who are you, why you are, and what you are called to do

Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become. The contemplative looks not so much around things but through them into their center. Through their center he discovers the world of spiritual beauty that is more real, has more density, more mass, more energy, and greater intensity than physical matter.

Thought: We complain about distractions preventing us from living the lives we want, but if we removed most of the distractions we complain about, would we be prepared for the introspective process that follows? Or would we quickly get uncomfortable and seek our new distractions.

Nouwen’s account is full of little nuggets and insights. I’ll do some follow up posts but it’s worth a read if you’re looking for someone who took his interior life seriously enough to spend seven months living as a monk.