Updated 11 August 2017 － A stay in a monastery? Maybe you've never thought of it but it might be just the change of pace you need - and from a woman's point of view the safety factor is high.
Monasteries come in all sizes and shapes, from the cosmopolitan and luxurious to the stern and downright severe. There's definitely one for you out there!
Every monastery stay is different.
I once stayed in a monastery in Thessaloniki in Greece, where the evening meal - prepared lovingly by the resident nuns - consisted of fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden, hot home-baked bread, homemade cheese and wine from the monastery's own vineyards (lost on me as I don't drink).
The down side was compulsory attendance at a three-hour religious service starting an hour before dawn... (This monastery, by the way, no longer provides accommodation). The seats were quite ingenious: they worked by pressure. When the armrests were pressed, they stayed down. When you let go or drifted off to sleep, they snapped up, trapping you with a great banging noise that echoed throughout the chapel.
1. Many monasteries accept women, even those peopled by monks so always check before writing one off.
2. Many are a little traditional and don't have email. To contact them you'll have to use the old-fashioned telephone, or even snail mail. And because communications are so slow, you may have to reserve well in advance.
3. You may save money. They are usually cheaper than hotels and sometimes even cheaper than a hostel dorm room. Free monastery stays, however, are still rare.
4. Monastery rooms will usually be simple, even spartan at times, and most will be furnished with single beds.
5. There may be shared bathrooms, so make sure you find out if this is something you dislike.
6. Peace and quiet are often needed by residents, so many monasteries are far from the crowds, in rural or remote areas. Even if they are in town, they are usually quiet, designed to keep out the sounds of the city.
7. There may be rules about silence, which may be mandatory at some times of the day.
8. There probably won't be a television - or even phones in some cases (and keep your cellphone turned off!)
9. There may be a curfew; miss it and it's a park bench for you because once the doors are locked everyone is asleep and there will be no one to let you in.
10. Most don't take credit cards so bring cash
11. Some communities grow their own food and make their own wine and cheese, so you'll be well fed, with organic produce, and will eat your fill.
12. You may find a communal kitchen in many monasteries so if you don't like the food you can cook your own.
13. Monasteries are usually old, and many of the buildings date back centuries. You may be living inside a historical monument.
14. Monasteries are often working, active religious communities that continue to function whether there are guests or not.
15. Religion doesn't necessarily have to be part of your experience, however. Many monasteries have added guest accommodations to earn additional income but don't expect guests to take part in any religious activities. It depends on the monastery.
While you won't usually have to take part in religious activities (trust me to find the exception), you'll be expected to respect the faith of the monastery, whatever yours might be.
Remember, these are ultimately religious communities and even if they do provide monastery accommodation, you are not in a normal commercial environment.
For more than 1500 years monasteries have been providing hospitality to travelers and pilgrims, most of them male. Today's institutions - especially those in Europe - have evolved. They are more like a monastery bed and breakfast than a place of prayer and retirement. They tend to welcome women too, of any faith, race or world view.
Equally, some monastery stays require meditation or prayer as a condition of residence.
In one stay at a monastery on the Brazilian coast - at that time the only Zen mountain monastery in South America - I was asked to take part in silent meditation. It was not only silent, but immobile, and all guests were expected to sit still for hours on a small pillow. I'm not good at sitting still at the best of times but for those so inclined, it was heaven.
I, on the other hand, had to be hauled to my feet at the end of the session.
In some parts of the world staying at a monastery is more common than in others.
If you don't want to plan ahead, find a large monastery or two when you get into town and phone. Each one is managed differently and while some will welcome you, others will send you on your way.
Just don't confuse a stay in a monastery with a former monastery that's turned into a hotel - or you'll be surprised when the bill comes!
This is actually more complicated than it seems, because while most people agree there are differences, not everyone agrees on what they are. For example...
According to Monsignor Charles Pope in Our Sunday Visitor, "The term ‘monastery’ is meant to signify that residents live there apart from the everyday world." The Benedictine Sisters seem to concur: "A monastery is where a monastic community resides and practices its common life of work and prayer."
And our friend Wikipedia says this: "In English usage since about the 19th century the term "convent" almost invariably refers to a community of women, while "monastery" and "friary" are used for men. In historical usage they are often interchangeable, with "convent" especially likely to be used for a friary."
However, when it comes to convent and monastery accommodation in Europe, both terms are almost interchangeable - with most monasteries in rural areas and most convents in more central areas which pilgrims can reach more easily. Don't be fooled though - there's no hard and fast rule when it comes to convent stays.
The following books are excellent resources to help you find monastery stays in Europe and monastery stays USA.
If you have a church, that's a good place to ask about convents and monasteries, as is the tourist office at your destination.
Throughout Asia, monasteries are often open to lay persons but accommodation is mostly for those who want to practice meditation. I'm thinking specifically of one monastery I'm familiar with in Thailand, Suan Mokkh, which welcomes people who want to practice meditation, but it's not just for accommodation.
While there are great hotels that have taken over and refurbished old monasteries (click here and Search for 'monastery'), staying in a monastery that's still active is a different experience and one that can be empowering, enlightening and a lot of fun.