October 5th, 2017
“Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.”
Sisters of Mercy by Leonard Cohen
We took the back roads from Pete’s home in Pottersville, New York, to the retreat house in Rochester. The highway first took us through the Adirondacks with the trees flaming autumn colors. Flashes of scarlet, yellow, and burnt orange greeted us at every turn. Once we got past Rome, the landscape flattened out a bit, and we skirted the shore of Lake Ontario for a couple hours. Lake Oneida was on our left. We took a break to gaze at its waters and then eat a late lunch.
Karin and I had never been in Rochester before. I had been imagining a rust belt city, grimy and tired. We didn’t get to see much of the town, but what we did see did not match my expectations. The Mercy Spirituality Center occupies a huge house on Highland Avenue, a busy street that runs through a pleasant residential area. Highland Park is close by. The house itself dates back to the 1860’s. It has been used by the Sisters of Mercy since 1986.
Karin and I had not originally planned to stay at Mercy. We had hoped to spend a night or two at a Trappist monastery close to Buffalo. Unfortunately, the monastery’s retreat house was full. However, the house of mercy had a room for us.
The Sisters of Mercy (Hermanas de la Misericordia) were founded in Dublin almost two hundred years ago. They came to Rochester back in 1857. The nuns actively work on environmental issues. They run the retreat house to provide an oasis of quiet in an urban setting. They do a good job. The house is peaceful and inviting. When Karin and I arrived, a group of women were just completing a centering prayer retreat.
A lay woman named Karen greeted us and gave us the tour of the house. Our room was the only one with an attached bathroom/shower. The house is kind of set up like a bed and breakfast. Well, it’s a bed and breakfast with a chapel on the first floor, and an extensive library on the second floor. Karen showed us the dining room and the kitchen, and she explained that we could make ourselves a continental breakfast when we got up in the morning. We could eat whatever we wanted. Karen also showed us how to set the alarm system, since none of the staff would remain in the house after 4:30 PM.
After Karen from the Sisters of Mercy left for the evening, Karin and I had complete run of the house. It’s kind of wild to be all alone in a strange house. It was also interesting to have complete strangers place all their trust in us.
I wandered about the house, exploring it. I was tempted to be like Goldilocks, and try out every bed in every room. I checked out the chapel. It felt very Catholic with a slightly Buddhist sensibility. Karin noted that the chapel had prayer cushions just like in the Zen Center back home. The chapel also had a singing bowl to start and stop meditation practice. The library was well-stocked and comfortable. I read a book for a while lying on a couch. Eventually, Karin woke me up.
One thing that struck me about the house was the excellent taste in artwork displayed. There was a wonderful mural depicting the Book of Ecclesiastes. The nuns and their lay partners obviously had a deep love of beauty, and an intuitive understanding of it. I saw nothing there that looked cheesy or sentimental. It all fit into an attractive whole.
The Sisters of Mercy are dying out, in a literal sense. Young nuns are hard to find. Karen told us the sisters are gradually passing their work and mission on to lay persons, especially lay women. For now, the sisters still exist, and they still bring Christ into the world.
I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.