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September 9, 2004
 A view through the herb garden at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, N.Y. shows one of the Shaker buildings still in use

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• The Abode of the Message

The Abode of the Message

by Megan Whilden

A gentle center for a 'religion of the heart'


In the Sept. 9 issue of Berkshires Week, the article by Megan Whilden on the Abode of the Message, the New Lebanon, N.Y., Sufi community, incorrectly stated that the Abode operated Mountain Road School. According to Farid Gruber, directing teacher at the school, Mountain Road School is an independent, private prekindergarten through sixth-grade institution administered by a cooperative parent-teacher collaborative. The school is within the Abode's main complex in New Lebanon. For information, call (518) 794-8520 or visit www.mountainroadschool.org.

Just 10 miles and 20 minutes from downtown Pittsfield is a tranquil oasis first established by the Shakers and now under the care of another spiritual community. The Abode of the Message, as it is now called, is a Sufi community dedicated to kindness, love for one another and respect for all religions.

The Abode of the Message was established almost 30 years ago by the Sufi Order of North America, which is dedicated to the teachings of an Indian Sufi mystic named Hazrat Inayat Khan who came to the West in the early 20th century.

 Residents of the Abode of the Message gather in the dining hall and form a prayer circle just before sitting down to dinner

Sufism is one of the mystical strains of religion and spirituality that focuses on the relationship between the seeker and God, sometimes called the beloved in the tradition. It's closely associated with Islam because, says Devi Tide, director of the North American Sufi Healing Order, "many Sufis lived in lands where Islam was the dominant religion. But Sufis existed before Islam."

Hazrat Inayat Khan called the Sufi path "the religion of the heart." He taught the acceptance and value of all religions, and established the Universal Worship service, which is still practiced today at the Abode and elsewhere. In the service the major religions of both the East and the West are represented by candles and scriptures on a single altar. Each service has a theme, which is addressed in readings from the scriptures of the major traditions.

He encouraged its followers to become more deeply connected with their own religious background, and today there are practicing Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and more participating at the Abode. "The Sufi Order encourages all participants to celebrate the divine through their own faith, and in fact strengthen it," noted Devi. "Hazrat Inayat Khan believed to celebrate one faith is to celebrate all faiths."

 Smoke forms as Devin Franklin, who works with children at the Flying Deer Nature Center at the Abode, shows sisters Phoebe, 8, Sophia, 3, and Moriah Martle, 11, how to make a fire without matches by using rope and wood. Franklin has lived at the Abode for 3 1/2 years.

"What he brought to the West," says Sura Gilbert-Miller, director of the Sufi Order International, "was the heart of Sufism.”

Located just over the border in New Lebanon, N.Y., the Abode was founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan's son, Sufi and interfaith leader Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who passed away this summer at the age of 88. Pir Vilayat’s son, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, is now the spiritual leader of the community. In addition to the interfaith mystical training he has received from his father, Pir Zia studied Buddhism with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as traditional Sufism.

Besides being a residential spiritual community encompassing 400 mountain acres, where approximately 55 people make their homes, the Abode also serves as a retreat and conference center, and features a guesthouse, bookstore and group campground.

Not only do they present a number of workshops or retreats on subjects ranging from shamanism to creativity, they also rent out their facilities to a wide variety of groups throughout the year. The weekend I visited, there was a group of Native American women musicians at their mountain camp, and another group of medical students interested in natural healing and their advisors who come out twice a year. There are rooms available for short term rental, a hall for gatherings of up to 50 participants, and a secluded campground conference center capable of hosting up to 200 guests in tents, huts and cabins. Organic, healthy, mostly vegetarian food cooked to order is available, and guided individual retreats are also offered.

A newly refurbished guesthouse is available year-round and might be especially attractive to smaller ski groups that prefer a quiet, off-the-beaten-track location. Family rooms and a fully equipped kitchen with dining area are available and bathroom facilities are shared. During your visit you can schedule acupuncture, massage and bodywork sessions through the program office, or arrange for a guided snowshoe walk.

 A delicious dinner of vegetables, rice, noodles, sesame sauce, and various other ingredients, is served in the dining area of the Abode of the Message last Thursday evening.

The Wisdom's Child Bookstore is open Thursday through Monday, from noon to 5, and features a variety of books on Sufism and other spiritual traditions, healing, and on the Shakers. They also sell Sufi music CDs and cassettes, jewelry, incense, prints, and other items. (I was intrigued by a book entitled "The Shamanic Way of the Bee.") And they run a private grade school for kindergarten through fifth grade, called the Mountain Road School, as well as the Flying Deer summer day camp.

Recently one Sunday I visited the Abode. The drive along Route 20 was beautiful, and the road past the Darrow School to the Abode's complex of Shaker buildings even more so. I attended the lovely universal worship service, where the theme that Sunday, sacred sexuality, was approached from the viewpoint of at least six major religions. Afterwards we went to the dining hall for brunch, served buffet style. Most of the vegetables were grown in their gardens, and the food was delicious and healthy. There were apples baked with tofu, a surprising combination that was delicious; scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, salad fixings, sour cream coffeecake, coffee and more. The cost for the brunch was a very reasonable $8.

 Richard Zoeller puts on his harness as he prepares to help other residents work on repairing the roof of the apartment he shares with his wife and 4 year old son, located in the barn behind him, at the Abode of the Message. Residents generally work together to do repairs around the property, it is rare when they have to call in outside contractors.

We took our food outside to eat at a picnic table under a tree, while nearby vendors sold beautifully embroidered shawls, clothing and hats from India, and jewelry and perfume. If I wanted to, I could have stayed on for a class on Rumi, an afternoon of zhikr, or Islamic prayer, and an evening talk on Hazrat Inayat Khan's teachings.

The mood that day was gentle and welcoming, and the presence of Shakers was easy to sense. "They definitely set the tone," noted Sura. "We love their songs and feel their presence." The last three Shakers visited the Abode when it was first established in the early 1970s and were happy to see that a spiritual community had again taken root on the property “After all,” smiled Devi, “we share a similar basic philosophy: no harm done to others, kindness to all, and look for the good that lies within all people.”

 Jennifer Wittman, general manager of Wisdom's Child Bookstore at the Abode of the Message, talks with Linda Noor Nicolai, at left. Wittman has lived there for almost two years, and Nicolai has been going to the Abode every summer for 28 years.

Whether you are interested in finding out more about the path of Sufism, attending a universal worship service, or exploring the grounds with an eye towards bringing a group or conference here, you'll be welcomed, as hospitality is a key tenet of the Sufi tradition.

For more than 20 years, the Abode has hosted a Labor Day retreat, and this year was no exception. The retreat included a traditional universal worship service on Sunday. Another service on Monday morning, led by Pir Zia, was held outdoors and included musicians from many different traditions, including a Jewish cantor.


Ana Wolf does some work in the herb garden, one of 35 gardens at the Abode of the Message, last Friday morning. Wolf, who lives in Berlin, N.Y., is a volunteer at the Abode.

Upcoming weekend workshops include "Living in Oneness: A Shamanic Weekend" with Elizabeth von Madarasz, Sept. 24-26; "Dynamics of the Heart" with Pir Zia Inayat Khan and Himayat Inayati on Oct. 1-3; and a workshop on death and dying with David Less Nov. 19-21.

 Rabia Longworth leads the seeker class in the library at the Abode of the Message, which is attended by both residents and the general public. Longworth has lived at the Abode for 19 years.

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