hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2017


A sanctuary for all seekers

Sufi retreat keeps spiritual focus in former Shaker buildings


The Abode of the Message, a Sufi community and retreat center in New Lebanon, N.Y., was established in 1975 in a collection of 19th century buildings that were once part of the large local Shaker community. Susan Sabino photoThe Abode of the Message, a Sufi community and retreat center in New Lebanon, N.Y., was established in 1975 in a collection of 19th century buildings that were once part of the large local Shaker community. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer

On a summer afternoon at The Abode of the Message, the close-knit campus of flower gardens and wooden buildings is showing signs of peak-season life.

The aroma of homemade soup wafts from the kitchen. The nearby herb garden is verdant with basil and rosemary. A few of the permanent residents, arms laden with fresh linens, make their way to a residence hall to prepare rooms for incoming guests. Visitors on retreat spill quietly out of the meditation hall, heading for the next workshop or perhaps a massage with one of the healing arts practitioners.

The scene is typical at The Abode of the Message, which describes itself as an Eco-Sufi village and retreat center. The village, an intentional spiritual community of the Sufi Order International, was established in 1975 at the site of a former Shaker settlement just west of the Massachusetts border.

It has become a favorite refuge for people from many backgrounds.
“We get visitors from the tri-state region and around the world,” said Al Bellenchia, the Abode’s executive director, adding that people of all faiths, and even no faith, are welcome.

The main buildings were once part of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society, which was founded in 1785 and grew to become the largest Shaker settlement in the United States. The Abode occupies what was known as the South Family Shaker Village, with 350 acres on a largely unspoiled swath of Mount Lebanon.

There were once four Shaker families on the mountain. The Shaker structures, built mainly in the 19th century, remain and have been transfigured for other purposes. Apart from the Abode on the south campus, the north campus at Mount Lebanon is now home to the Shaker Museum; the east campus is Darrow School, a private college preparatory school; and the western portion has become a private residence.


Mystical tradition
Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who founded The Abode of the Message in 1975, was a teacher and cleric of the East Indian Chishti Order of Sufism. He was the son of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), who is considered to be the first Sufi master to bring the Sufi teachings to the West. The Inayati Order adapted some Sufi teachings to a Western context and is commonly known as Universal Sufism.

Sufism is an ancient and mystical branch of Islam, sometimes referred to as the “inward dimension of Islam.” The Chishti Order of Sufism, which began in Afghanistan in the 10th century, is known for its welcoming attitude towards seekers of all faiths and backgrounds.
Ibrahim Pedrinan, the Abode’s director of programming, said the Chishti tradition centers on the importance of service to others, the recognition that their holy book is the “sacred manuscript of nature,” and recognition of humankind as the one brotherhood on the planet.

“Inayat Khan said it doesn’t matter what path you’re walking,” Pedrinan said. “It’s about facilitating your own path to your own divinity, and being guided to a place from within.”
After the death of Pir Vilayat in 2004, the Inayati Order is now headed by his son Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, who recently moved the order’s headquarters to Richmond, Va., but still makes regular visits to the Abode.

“Traditionally, the Pir was the spiritual director here,” Pedrinan said. “But with his relocation to Virginia, we’re looking to diversity with our teachers.”

In its mission statement, the Abode says it aims to “offer all Sufis and seekers a sanctuary for spiritual exploration and community, in harmony with nature, built upon the teachings and practices of universalist Inayati Sufism. Thus, the Abode is spiritual in nature, universal in message, and elemental in practice.”


Retreats, classes and events
Because many of its structures and furnishings are original, the Abode at first glace still has the appearance of a Shaker community. But a closer look reveals the gentle imprint of its new inhabitants. Each building, for example, bears a wooden sign for one of the Sufis’ 99 names of God, including Rezak, “The Sustainer,” which hovers above the entrance to the dining hall.
There are seven main Shaker-style structures on the Abode campus. The dining hall and kitchen are an always-humming focal point of the community, and there is also a large meditation hall, classrooms, staff offices, and residential quarters as well as space for accommodating more than 70 guests.

Although the majority of the Abode’s programs and events take place on the main campus, there are additional accommodations at the summit of Mount Lebanon. There, amid the towering oak and pine trees, are 16 private retreat huts, two long-house-style cabins with 40 beds, and areas for pitching tents. There’s also a full kitchen, bathhouses with plumbing, a large, circus-like tent pitched over a wooden platform that serves as a meeting space, dining pavilions, and a campfire circle.

The scenic Taconic Ridge summit also has winding trails, a suspended wooden bridge for viewing the valley below, and a cobble-stoned meditation space. Accommodations on the ridge are available from May through September and are used both for larger groups, such as the popular Wild Women Fest, held every August, and as a quiet getaway for those seeking solitude.
“We offer a variety of retreats, both guided and open,” Bellenchia said. “People come for both long- and short-term stays. Some come and meditate for days. Others just want to come for the day to get a cranial-sacral treatment and a good meal.”

Besides weekly Sufi lectures, the Abode offers classes in yoga, dancing, drumming and spiritual study, many of them extending to other religions and philosophies. Kabbalah weekend workshops begin with a Shabbat dinner on Friday. Buddhist masters visit regularly for workshops and interfaith lectures.

“People like to come here for the open, exploratory environment,” Bellenchia said.


Making music, raising food
The population at the Abode is a rotating mix of long-term residents and visitors on retreat.
Those in residency donate a certain portion of their time to duties such as housekeeping, farming, cooking and groundskeeping. Pedrinan said the number of residents can range from 17 to 100 people.

“The community renews itself all the time,” he said. “We welcome all ages, and you don’t have to be Sufi. Generally those on a spiritual exploration are drawn here.”

Because the community relies heavily on donations to operate, the Abode is in the midst of its Summer Appeal campaign, which provides a significant portion of its capital fund.
“There are three legs to what fuels us financially: programs, community-based activity, and donations,” Bellenchia said.

Upcoming events include a Sept. 23 master concert with musician Randy Weston in conversation with Pir Zia Inayat Khan, and a musically based retreat on Sept. 22-24 titled “Healing Ourselves and Our Community: Harmonizing in Retreat.”

The monthly Village Visits meetings take place over a weekend and are designed as a mini-immersion into the Abode’s volunteer programs, residential life, spiritual study and recreation. The next two sessions are Sept. 22-24 and Oct. 27-29.

Monthly farm classes take place from April through October and are followed by dinner and a Sufi Message class. The next class, on Sept. 14, will discuss the harvest and how the seasons affect one’s diet and other aspects of life.

“The Abode offers retreats and programs year-round,” Bellenchia said. “But our busy season is April through November.”

Pedrinan said the Abode’s home-cooked, organic meals have proved to be as much of a draw as the programming. The community maintains an eight-acre organic farm in partnership with Darrow School; the operation includes 86 chickens, two draft horses, four beehives, and a separate community-supported agriculture program with shareholders in the surrounding area.
Food at the Abode is largely vegetarian, though chicken and fish are served.

“People love our food,” Pedrinan said. “Much of it comes from our own farm. … The eggs are delicious. And there’s so much love coming from the residents, who are also the cooks. Our food is a cornerstone of our community.”

In addition to a Sunday brunch that’s open to the public, community dinners take place every Tuesday and Thursday evening.

Pedrinan said cultivating the land and feeding both residents and visitors is part of the Eco-Sufi mission.

“Ecology and farming are central to our philosophy, which aligns with Shaker values,” he said. “We’re keeping the legacy going which began with the Native Americans, then the Shakers, and now the Sufis.”

A universal worship service takes place at 11 a.m. every Sunday at The Abode of the Message and is followed by an organic brunch. Reservations are required for the brunch, which is $10 per person. To reserve, call (518) 794-8090. Visit www.theabode.org for more information on programs and retreats.