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Prayers optional: A vacation spent at Italy's religious guesthouses

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Rome, the "home office" for Catholic congregations worldwide, houses the greatest concentration of such lodgings. Taking in guests allows the communities to sustain themselves even as their ranks are thinning, and a public eager for new and different travel experiences – even the experience of reflection or silence or spiritual growth – is there to help, says Mr. Wright. He estimates convent and monastery rates to be at least one-third lower than comparable nonreligious lodgings. The houses vary greatly. Some offer little more than a bed and a hall bath. Others have air conditioning, Internet access, private baths, and in-room TVs – recent innovations made in response to market forces.

Mark Logan, of the online booking website monasterystays.com, says the United States, Canada, and Australia supply the lion's share of convent/monastery business, typically couples in their 50s who've already done the requisite guided tour of Italy, as well as families and budget-minded travelers of all ages.

No matter how welcome the income may be for the hosts, hospitality first and foremost emanates from a biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, explains Brother Richard Oliver, webmaster for the Order of St. Benedict, the community most directly associated with monastic hospitality. Even in the case of visitors who come without an overt religious purpose, this theology considers the mystery of God to be ever at work, he explains: "There's some reason they're doing this rather than a cheap motel. You never know what someone has to give."

As early as the 3rd century AD, the desert fathers made hospitality a priority. Later, Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, elaborated on it in his famous rule: "Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, 'I came as a guest, and you received Me' " (a paraphrase of Matt. 25:35).

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