CHICAGO — Joe and Marilyn Shockney of San Antonio traveled to Europe on a wing and a prayer.
After flying to Italy, they stayed overnight at several convents. A friendly nun at Convento Oasi Regina Pacis in Santa Margherita Ligure lugged their bags from the street up the stairs to their room. The Shockneys spent the evening playing cards on the convent's marble terrace as the blazing sun dipped below the grand Mediterranean.
"The beauty was just amazing," says Mrs. Shockney. "People get the wrong impression when I tell them we stay at convents. It's run like a hotel. My friends still don't believe it."
"We paid $35 a night for each of us," says her husband, a retired oil company executive. "To get comparable accommodations [elsewhere], you'd have to pay a lot more."
When in Europe, the Shockneys did as Europeans do. Staying at monasteries and convents is old hat for Old Worlders. Americans are scarce at religious guest houses, opting instead for hotels, pensions and bed-and-breakfasts. But those who do lodge at monasteries and convents, say the experience is divine.
"One can expect quiet, cleanliness, and friendliness at the religious guest houses," says Eileen Barish, author of "Lodging in Italy's Monasteries" (Anacapa Press). "These are very sweet environments. The monks and nuns want you to enjoy their lifestyle. The rooms are spotless. They truly believe that cleanliness is next to godliness."
Religious guest houses are open to all regardless of faith affiliation. Hospitality is an ancient monastic tradition that began when pilgrims needed a bed on their way to religious shrines.
Overnight lodgers at monasteries and convents often lie down with history. Consider Casa Ospitaliera del Gran San Bernardo in Saint Oyen, Italy, a tiny hamlet near the Swiss border. Hannibal marched his elephants through the Alps in this mountainous region 200 years before Christ, and the monks of San Bernardo have trained Saint Bernards for mountain rescues since the 11th century.
Religious guest houses offer a respite from a whirlwind trip through Europe. In Paris, removed from the city's hustle and bustle, is Foyer Friedland, run by the Pres du St. Sacrement and featuring an exquisite chapel. In Dublin, travelers enjoy the sedate ambience of Orlagh House, founded by Augustinian monks in 1790. Smack in the center of Rome near the Colosseum is the tranquil San Giuseppe di Cluny, a convent.
Yet most monasteries and convents are located in gorgeous natural settings such as in lush valleys and aside snowcapped mountains. Religious orders typically cherish the beauty of the natural world as evidence of the benevolence of God. And religious communities, hundreds of years old, had first dibs on Europe's grandest landscapes and chose wisely.
"Religious bodies really knew how to pick out real estate," says Col. James Hughes of Bloomfield, N.J., author of "Overnight or Short Stay at Religious Houses Around the World" (Hugen Press).
The rooms at religious houses range from Spartan to luxurious. The bathroom is sometimes located down the hall (as in many budget hotels in Europe). Breakfast is commonly included in the standard price and reservations are recommended.
Though the monks and nuns strictly refrain from proselytizing, guests are welcome to attend a service, where a stirring Gregorian chant may be heard. Most of the religious houses in Hughes's book belong to Catholic or Anglican communities. Yet the nearly 2,200 lodgings he lists are sponsored by 23 denominations ranging from Baptist to Buddhist.
Guests treated as tourists, not pilgrims
The religious houses are well aware that their guests are tourists, not pilgrims.
Ask them why visitors come and get a practical response: "Guests prefer to stay here because we're in a quiet area away from the noise of town. We have a beautiful view of the surrounding hills and valleys," says Giuseppe Cremaschi of Collegio Convitto Celana San Carlo, a complex consisting of two churches and a school near Bergamo, Italy.
An advantage of staying at monasteries is the chance to rub shoulders and break bread with Europeans who are fellow guests. Hotels don't seem to foster mingling like religious houses do.
"You're really immersed in Italy when you stay at an Italian monastery," says Ms. Barish, the guidebook author. "You learn what life is like in another country. That stays with you for a long time."
The religious houses also feature mouth-watering home cooking, some of it based on recipes passed down for decades or longer. The vegetables may come straight from the order's garden. Some of the food products are locally famous, such as the delectable pasta sauce concocted by the former mother superior at Monastero di San Antonio Abate in Norcia, Italy.
There's nothing ascetic about the meal service at religious guest houses. St. Benedict (480-543), the founder of Western monasticism, turned away from the hardship practiced by ascetics in the East. A practical man, Benedict urged a moderate lifestyle that included ample food and drink.
Benedict gave monasticism its distinctive character that survives to this day. He promulgated the basic monastic virtues of prayer, obedience, and labor and celebrated the virtues of work and humility.
Monks approach all whom they meet with an at-your-service demeanor. Beyond the stunning architecture and laughably low prices, guests at religious houses are most enchanted with the cordiality of their hosts.
"They give you tips about the nearby marketplace or tourist sites," says Barish, "They're just so open and friendly."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society